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The third time was almost the charm for the No. 4 Cats tonight against No. 1 South Carolina in the semi-finals of the SEC Tournament.
In the Cats third meeting with the Gamecocks this season, a late third period spark was not enough to hold off South Carolina in a 89-77 loss.
Kentucky's seniors were key for the Cats in the semi-final loss, picking up extra ground with sophomore guard Taylor Murray out for whiplash after a vicious collision yesterday against Alabama.
South Carolina was also without their star center Alaina Coates for a majority of the game with an ankle injury. The center entered the game during the second period and exited in the third after tweaking the ankle.
Things shook out fairly between the Cats and the Gamecocks during the first period. Kentucky was able to get defensive stops when needed, but just couldn't keep up with South Carolina on the offensive end. Kentucky shot well, 62.5% from the field, but that was nothing compared to South Carolina's 72.2% leaving the Cats trailing at 27-20.
The second period was when things got ugly. Kentucky went on a scoring drought of 4:20 while making only one of 10. The Cats were finally able to get some momentum moving, ending the half making five of six, but South Carolina had a response to each Kentucky basket.
By the end of the first half, Makayla Epps had already scored as many points as she had the previous day and then some. Her 16 points and Evelyn Akhator's 10 points in the first two periods are what kept the Cats in the game.
Those are the same two who also led the Cats on a 13-3 run to close the third period that coincided with a 4:20 scoring drought for the Gamecocks.
Down 14 originally, Kentucky was not shaken and was able to get the game within two with a chance for the lead on a missed Jadia Roper three-pointer. The Cats entered the final 10 minutes of play down two at 62-60.
"I feel like every position or situation we get in with every team, it's nothing new to us. We've been there before. Us being down 14, we've been there before. You could tell our team wanted to win today so we could play tomorrow," Epps said.
South Carolina fought back, however, going on a 8-2 run early in the fourth quarter to pull away. Kentucky was able to fight back and get within 2 at 75-73 with four minutes left to play thanks to a put-back from junior center Alyssa Rice.
The junior would foul out just after making the basket, which allowed South Carolina to take it in the paint with far more ease.
The Cats went on a two and a half minute scoring drought late in the third quarter that would put the icing on the cake for Gamecocks.
This loss mimics a 95-87 loss that happened less than a week ago in Columbia against South Carolina. While this puts the Cats at 0-3 this season against the Gamecocks, head coach Matthew Mitchell does not believe it's anything to hang their heads about.
"We were right there. We were a possession or two away. I thought the team had great confidence," Mitchell said. "I'm proud of our team for executing. We were a confident bunch, fired up. Everybody wanted to win. Just proud of how they competed."
Epps led all scorers with 31 points, tying her career best in the SEC Tournament and the third-best mark by any Kentucky player in the tournament.
Akhator recorded yet another double-double, scoring 24 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
Kentucky attempted to take their game outside to avoid the brick wall that South Carolina's inside game is, but made just two of their 19 three-point attempts. However, with Coates out, the Cats were able to work the inside a bit. South Carolina scored just two more points in the paint than Kentucky, with 48 compared to UK's 46. The Cats did manage to out rebound the Gamecocks 42 to 26.
The Cats had an attacking mentality tonight, shooting almost putting up almost 20 more shots than South Carolina. However, it didn't matter that Kentucky put up 72 shots compared to the Gamecock's 56 because UK shot just 42% from the field while their opponent shot 57%.
With Murray out, both freshman Jadia Roper and senior Jessica Hardin were able to put in significant minutes for the Cats today, contributing 15 and 10 respectively. Roper did leave during the fourth quarter after taking a hard hit and having an apparent head injury which is currently under evaluation according to Mitchell.
This loss ends Kentucky's run in the SEC Tournament, but it is looking all the more likely that the Cats will be playing in Lexington Region in the NCAA Tournament.
While we won't know for another week, the possibility is exciting for seniors Epps and Akhator.
"It's a big home-court advantage, especially with all the Kentucky fans that will pack Memorial if that does happen. Evelyn and I had a memorable Senior Night. The opportunity to play in Memorial again is something we're looking forward to, if the opportunity comes our way," Epp said.