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‘We were flat defensively.’ Kentucky women fall on Senior Day to No. 1 South Carolina.

When preparing for its rematch against No. 1 South Carolina on Sunday, Kentucky women’s basketball wanted, more than anything, to prove it was better than what the Wildcats brought to the Gamecocks in their 98-36 loss in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 15.

“Obviously we didn’t have a great showing in Columbia,” UK head coach Kyra Elzy said. “Which we were really disappointed and embarrassed about, And today it was just more proving to ourselves that we had more. They didn’t get our best in Columbia. We need to come here today, fight, compete and lay it on the line and that’s been the mindset for the last two days.”

Sunday’s matchup — a 103-55 loss on Senior Day in Rupp Arena — didn’t end in an upset, and Kentucky (11-17, 4-10 SEC) never truly competed with the Gamecocks (27-0, 14-0 SEC) on the way to giving up the most points in a game under Elzy, but the Wildcats did show improvement from the 62-point road loss. South Carolina took advantage of UK’s familiar foe, the third quarter, and built upon an already-overwhelming lead established after a monster first period. Elzy said she saw a stronger sense of confidence in her team, noting their response when the third quarter rolled around.

“I thought we had some open shots in that first and second quarter that just didn’t fall,” Elzy said. “I thought in Columbia, that just tanked us. But I thought in the third quarter, you know, we started hitting some shots. The problem is we can’t trade baskets when you’re down. We needed some defensive stops. But thought we kept fighting. In that third, we scored 21, the most that we’ve scored in the game, and the third quarter has been our nemesis. So that was the quarter that we did talk about. We had talked about playing off two feet, moving the ball, hitting open shots. I thought we got some good looks, we’ll just have to knock those down.”

Kentucky’s 21 points in the third quarter nearly matched its entire first-half performance (22), and got more players involved in finding the basket than in the previous two periods. But, unlike UK, the Gamecocks had no problems scoring in any quarter, shooting 64% on 38-of-59 from the field, including 8-of-12 from long range, and 90% on 19-of-21 from the free-throw line.

“I didn’t like our defensive intensity,” Elzy said. “And so I thought from the very get-go, we were flat defensively, which made us press offensively and, you know, taking care of the ball. We’re gonna have to do that in these upcoming games. Nineteen turnovers and they scored 32 points, so we can do a better job. So the message is control the things that we can control. We can control our defensive intensity, you know, making the right reads, and we’ll have a short-term memory. We gotta go back to work and get ready for our next one.”

The Gamecocks entered the rematch with the understanding that Kentucky would want to prove itself; and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley and her staff built the game plan accordingly, taking special notice of the Wildcats’ comeback victory against Mississippi State — which UK scored 19 unanswered points to close — on Thursday night.

Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy, right, instructs Amiya Jenkins (20) during Sunday’s loss to top-ranked South Carolina in Rupp Arena. Sunday’s loss ended UK’s two-game winning streak. The Wildcats have two regular season games remaining before the SEC Tournament.
Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy, right, instructs Amiya Jenkins (20) during Sunday’s loss to top-ranked South Carolina in Rupp Arena. Sunday’s loss ended UK’s two-game winning streak. The Wildcats have two regular season games remaining before the SEC Tournament.

“When you go on a run like that, you’re always cautious of, you know, repeat performances like that,” Staley said. “So for us, we wanted to get out to a quick start. We wanted to share the basketball, we wanted to make it very difficult for them to have any open looks. And they did get some, and they made us pay for them. But moving down to the end of the season and postseason, we want to play our best basketball and this was a great start to do that.”

Kentucky finished with three players in double figures — Ajae Petty (16), Saniah Tyler (15) and Maddie Scherr (11) — and shot 34% on 22-of-65 from the field, including 29% on 4-of-14 from three.

Six Gamecocks scored in double figures — Bree Hall (18), MiLaysia Fulwiley (17), Sania Feagin (16), Ashlyn Watkins (13), Te-Hina Paopao (11) and Chloe Kitts (10). Kitts also grabbed 12 rebounds.

With this victory, South Carolina clinched sole ownership of the 2023-24 SEC regular season title, the team’s eighth in the past 11 years.

“They’re the number one team in the country for a reason,” Elzy said. “They’re talented, they have a lot of depth and their ability to score inside and out, that’s why they’re ranked number one in the country.”

Full circle for Eniya Russell

Eniya Russell, one of three Kentucky seniors who opted to participate in Senior Day festivities alongside Emma King and Nyah Leveretter, gets to say something not many can; Russell celebrated her Senior Day while facing off against her former team.

Following two seasons — including a 2021 SEC Tournament title, a 2022 SEC regular season title and a 2022 NCAA national championship — with the Gamecocks, Russell transferred to Kentucky.

Against South Carolina on Sunday, Russell had six points, two rebounds and one steal. She received a technical foul following an altercation in the fourth quarter that resulted in Hall also receiving a technical foul. This season, Russell is averaging 10.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in 20.7 minutes per game.

“I’m happy for her,” Staley said. “I understood why she transferred, she wanted a bigger opportunity, she wanted more playing time. And, as you can see, she deserves what she’s getting here at Kentucky. I’m glad she came here, I’m glad she’s under Kyra’s tutelage and she’s excelling.”

At a Senior Day press conference Friday, Russell said Staley taught her the importance of perseverance.

“She taught me to just have a good mental aspect to it,” Russell said. “Like just focus on my game, just keep going. Know you’re gonna have bumps in the road, things of that sort, but just to keep going. So I’ll take that from her.”

Kentucky women’s basketball fell to 11-17 overall and 4-10 in Southeastern Conference play after Sunday’s 103-55 loss to South Carolina on Senior Day. Eniya Russell (4) scored six points in facing her former team.
Kentucky women’s basketball fell to 11-17 overall and 4-10 in Southeastern Conference play after Sunday’s 103-55 loss to South Carolina on Senior Day. Eniya Russell (4) scored six points in facing her former team.

Freshmen update

The rematch provided both of Kentucky’s scholarship freshmen the opportunity to take the floor, albeit for just a combined 11 minutes.

This marked the 24th game in which 6-foot-4 forward Janaé Walker has played. Walker finished with two points on 1-of-2 shooting and one turnover in 10 minutes. Jordy Griggs, a 6-2 guard, subbed in during the final minute of the Wildcats’ loss, but nonetheless took the floor for the first time since the team’s 75-45 win over Furman on Dec. 17.

Elzy noted the freshmen’s development, and said they both continue to improve.

“They continue to grow,” Elzy said. “I thought Jordy had one of her best practices today. In shootaround I’ve been talking to her about pace, and competing even when you’re learning and growing and I thought she did that today. And she continues to get better. You know, Janae, you’ve seen her learn and grow. She’s one of the best screeners that we have, she does not mind physical play, very coachable. You know, a freshman is a freshman. You learn and grow; it’s learning on the job and they continue to get better. And we’ll need both of them.”

Griggs’ career high in both minutes and points happened in the team’s 76-57 loss to Minnesota at home, during which she scored three points on one made shot beyond the arc in nine minutes. Walker’s career high for points came in UK’s 73-61 loss at Louisville on Dec. 10, in which she scored six points in eight minutes. Walker clocked her career high in floor time during Kentucky’s 84-55 loss to North Carolina State at the Paradise Jam tournament Nov. 23 — just her second game ever — with 17 minutes.

Next game

Ole Miss at Kentucky

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

TV: SEC Network+ (online only)

Radio: WLAP-AM 630

Records: Kentucky 11-17 (4-10 SEC), Ole Miss (19-7, 9-4 SEC)

Series: Ole Miss leads 27-19

Last meeting: Ole Miss won 74-52 on Feb. 13, 2023 in Oxford, Miss.