Dawn Staley previews South Carolina’s rivalry game with Kentucky
Who: No. 16 South Carolina (14-5, 6-1 SEC) vs. No. 19 Kentucky (17-4, 4-3 SEC)
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31
Where: Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Kentucky
Watch: SEC Network
Radio: 1320 AM in Columbia area
Series history: South Carolina has a 30-33 record against Kentucky all-time, but has won eight in a row against the Wildcats. Under Dawn Staley, USC has a 13-9 record against UK.
Last meeting: Kentucky and South Carolina met twice last season, with the Gamecocks winning both times by nearly identical scores of 81-63 and 81-64. In the game at Kentucky, junior guard Tyasha Harris had a double-double with 12 points and a career-high 13 assists.
South Carolina projected starting lineup: Junior guard Tyasha Harris, redshirt junior guard Te’a Cooper, redshirt senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings, junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
Kentucky projected starting lineup: Senior guard Maci Morris, senior guard Taylor Murray, freshman guard Rhyne Howard, sophomore forward Tatyana Wyatt, sophomore forward Keke McKinney
Injury report: After missing Monday’s game against Vanderbilt with a muscle strain, sophomore guard Bianca Jackson is expected to be available for USC.
Resurgent rivalry: Before Missouri took the top spot as South Carolina fans’ least favorite team, Kentucky was a strong contender for the program’s biggest rival — the Wildcats had lots of success against USC early in Dawn Staley’s tenure and the teams’ contests became known for their intense physicality.
Last season, however, the rivalry regressed as Kentucky had its first losing record since 2003-2004 and USC strolled to a pair of lopsided wins. This year, though, it’s back on, as UK started the season on a nine-game win streak and has been in the top 20 for nine weeks now.
“We know it’s going to be a physical and competitive game. They compete for 40 minutes so we have to match their energy,” junior guard Tyasha Harris said.
Thursday’s contest will also mark the last time redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings will play in Lexington, where she spent two years of her career before transferring to Carolina.
“It’s a rival game so we’re prepped for it,” Dawn Staley said. “You gotta fight aggression with aggression, so we’re going to be aggressive as much as they’re going to be defensively.
“I know it’s a rivalry for us. I don’t know if any of the players, maybe some of the ones that are left over from a year or two ago, know the impact that this rivalry has and hopefully we can steal a win on the road.”
Double trouble: The twin keys to Kentucky’s strong season thus far have been freshman forward Rhyne Howard and senior guard Maci Morris. They both average more than 16 points per game and are 1-2 on the team in usage rate.
What makes Morris and Howard so good is the same quality: their versatility.
“(Morris is) a great player. She has a lot of things in her game that she can do, she can step back, she can score from the 3, in the midrange, on the drive, so we have to just lock in and try to shut her down and shut her production down,” Harris said.
“(Howard is) a matchup issue, because she’s big, she’s 6-foot-2, and she can do it all. She can score midrange, she can get to the basket and she’s got deep 3 range,” Staley said. “We got smaller guards, so we gotta play underneath her, pressure her and make her play a little bit quicker than she wants to play. Because if she’s comfortable in the speed that she wants to play, it’ll be a long night for us.”
A relatively undersized South Carolina frontcourt will have their hands full containing a pair of 6-foot-tall guards who can run the floor and create opportunities for themselves.
Gut-check time: After a full week off before playing Vanderbilt this Monday, South Carolina has to now turn around and play two more games this week, both on the road and both against teams hot on the Gamecocks’ heels in the SEC standings.
A loss to Kentucky would virtually end any hope Staley and her team have to catch first-place Mississippi State, and it would also give the Wildcats a potential tiebreaker in a mix of teams all vying to earn a coveted top-four seed and double-bye in the conference tournament.
“Just staying locked in, staying focused and don’t let anybody keep going on runs. The game’s full of runs, so we just gotta make sure we have ours too,” Harris said of how USC hopes to hang tough on the road.
After that, a matchup with surprising Arkansas awaits on Sunday. The Razorbacks are tied for third place right behind Carolina in the SEC despite being picked to finish 11th in the coaches and media preseason polls and look like a potential NCAA tournament team under the guidance of former Final Four coach Mike Neighbors.
“We really can’t drop another game if we want to stay toe-to-toe with Mississippi State and control us getting at least a share of the regular season title,” Staley said of the stretch. “We’re going to take it one game at a time, because if you look past one opponent, the one in front of you will sneak up on you and get you.”