Kentucky on top of the SEC
After toppling No. 7 Tennessee earlier in week, Wildcats add win over South Carolina
There's the way Kentucky likes to play -- think "Speed," only faster -- and then there are the many ways the Wildcats might have to play against various SEC opponents.
"Once you get into the league, sometimes you aren't able to impose your will at the same level that you could maybe in the nonconference schedule," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "What I've been encouraged about so far this season is that we've won a won a couple of up-tempo, high-scoring, and we won a pretty grind-it-out game that was very physical and tough in [Florida]. To be really good in the Southeastern Conference, you have to be able to what's happening that night."
The No. 8 Wildcats did that twice in the past week, and it has put them in the driver's seat of the SEC. On Thursday, they knocked off No. 7 Tennessee 61-60 in front of nearly 8,000 fans at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky. Rough night for Tennessee, but terrific night for the SEC and Kentucky. Junior guard A'dia Mathies had a career-high 34 points, including the game-winner with 4.2 seconds left.
Then Sunday, the Wildcats consolidated that victory by beating South Carolina 66-58. That combined with LSU's 62-58 stumble at Florida leaves the Wildcats alone atop the league standings at 5-0. LSU, which handed South Carolina its first conference loss, 58-48, Thursday in Baton Rouge, La., is 4-1, tied for second place with Tennessee and Georgia.
The Lady Vols beat No. 24 Vanderbilt 87-64 on Sunday but also got a scare with a knee injury to senior star Shekinna Stricklen. Preliminary reports indicate a hyperextension, so there's at least cautious optimism for Stricklen not being out for long. More information on her status is expected Monday or Tuesday.
While Kentucky's win over Tennessee drew bigger headlines for obvious reasons, the victory over the Gamecocks was quite significant, too. Kentucky had lost on its last two visits to South Carolina.
It was a big contrast in styles Sunday afternoon: Kentucky, which came in averaging 81.1 points per game versus coach Dawn Staley's South Carolina squad, which was at 61.8. Mitchell, in his fifth year running the show in Lexington, was concerned heading into the contest.
"Every time that we've gone to Columbia, it's been a difficult game for us," he said. "Because Dawn always has the team prepared, they play with great energy, and their defense is always tough."
This season, the Gamecocks' defense has been even more effective, Staley said, because she feels her players really do grasp her system.
"We finally got to a place where our players really understand conceptually what were trying to do," Staley said. "They now know how effective it is, because they've had some success with it.
"Also, we have great leadership. Our captains, La'Keisha Sutton and Courtney Newton, have done a tremendous job of keeping everybody on the same page. Our coaching staff doesn't have to quarterback every single play. Our players are making plays. It's a long time coming, to be quite honest."
Against LSU on Thursday, though, South Carolina couldn't quite maintain the defensive edge that gave the Gamecocks a 27-20 halftime lead. But, as was the case in their previous two losses -- against Penn State and at North Carolina State -- they kept their opponent in the 50s.
South Carolina held its nonconference foes to an average of 45.4 points per game, and that number was at 49.8 in SEC play before the Wildcats visited Sunday. But this time, the Gamecocks couldn't limit their foe offensively the way they needed to: Kentucky's 66 points were the most South Carolina has surrendered this season.
The Gamecocks did slow Mathies, limiting her to eight points. However, a more balanced attack, led by Keyla Snowden's 15 points, worked for Kentucky.
South Carolina's offense is not a powerhouse, which makes defense so imperative. No South Carolina players average in double figures; senior guard Markeshia Grant is tops at 9.6 ppg. Freshman forward Aleighsa Welch is next, coming off the bench for 9.3 ppg. Then there's Sutton (8.8), Ieasia Walker (7.8) and Ashley Bruner (7.2).
"In years past, teams could go after our leading scorers," Staley said. "But our offense now is coming from a lot of different places, and we've had some surprises. Our bench has been contributing and is probably more productive scoring than our starters. As a coaching staff, we don't know who's going to have the hot hand. We're feeding off everybody being able to contribute."
Sunday, Walker led the way for the Gamecocks with 14 points, Sutton had 12 and Welch 11. The biggest problem for South Carolina's offense was its 29 turnovers and making just 12 of 24 free-throw attempts.
"It's constant, it just keeps coming and coming," Staley said of Kentucky's pressure on defense, which the Wildcats effectively mixed up with zone. "But we keep turning the page. We played two of the top teams in the conference [in the past week]. We're continuing to grow, but we should win these games. They outplayed us the last three minutes of the game, and the turnovers killed us."
LSU, which had won 10 straight before falling at Florida on Sunday, next goes to Tennessee on Thursday, while Kentucky is at No. 16 Georgia. And if you're looking further down the road, LSU and Kentucky meet on Feb. 5 in Baton Rouge. And the Wildcats' rematch with Tennessee is Feb. 13 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Kentucky's only losses have been at Notre Dame, now ranked No. 2, and at Middle Tenneessee State. The latter was an upset, and it showed the Wildcats what happens when they come into a game with low energy.
"We've been able to get off to a good start," Mitchell said of a season which is going very well for his Wildcats. "We are just trying to get a little better every day. We're working hard to try to become a great practice team.
"But at this time of year, you better be pretty close to what you feel like you're going to be, because you don't have a ton of practices left. The most important thing for our team is to keep the focus squarely on Kentucky. We've played some good games this year it takes tremendous energy to play the way we try to play."
But it also takes a whole lot of energy to try to stop it. Every one of Kentucky's SEC foes so far can attest to that.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.