LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell didn’t lose his cool and that helped the No. 9 Wildcats keep theirs and come back from a big first-half deficit.
Trailing No. 14 South Carolina 44-30 at the break, the Wildcats sat in the locker room expecting Mitchell to storm in and lay into them for poor first half.
Instead, he stayed calm and encouraged his players to slowly work their way back in the game, embracing the process instead of searching for a 14-point play.
It took almost 17 minutes, but the Wildcats came back to take a lead and hit their free throws in the final minute to win 78-74.
“That’s such a difficult half to watch, and you feel bad and everybody’s down,” Mitchell said. “You have to show some leadership at that time. You must get in there — it’s your job as a coach to figure out how to change it.”
South Carolina shot 18 of 32 in the first half, and its efficiency improved early in the second.
The Gamecocks made their first five attempts after halftime and did not miss a shot until 11:05 was left.
But the Wildcats (22-3, 10-2 Southeastern Conference) answered methodically, limiting their turnovers and maximizing opportunities despite a rebounding disadvantage.
A’dia Mathies hit a 3-pointer with 3:50 to play that gave Kentucky its first lead of the second half at 69-68. South Carolina never regained the lead, but did tie the game twice. Kastine Evans broke the last tie with a two-pump-fake lay-up with 24.4 seconds left. Jennifer O’Neill and Evans each hit a pair of free throws in the final 15 seconds to cement Kentucky’s 10th league win of the season.
“We just knew we had to grind it out, go out and put a focus on winning every four-minute set,” Mathies said. “I don’t know how many we won, but we obviously won enough. We got the victory.
“We know we couldn’t make a 14-point play. So we just knew we had to grind it out and get stop after stop. We got a win doing it.”
South Carolina looked ready to pull away early in the game. It went on a 13-2 run over a four-minute stretch in the first half, silencing the 5,828 fans at Memorial Coliseum. Each time the Wildcats worked their way back into close range in the first half, South Carolina had an answer.
Asia Dozier hit a 3-pointer as time expired in the first half to give the Gamecocks a 44-30 lead at the break, and South Carolina’s lead reached its widest margin at 46-30 with 19:41 to play.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was brief in her postgame news conference, taking only five questions and answering all five questions with one sentence each. She said both teams gave maximum effort, and she was not disappointed with her Gamecocks in that aspect.
When asked what Kentucky did differently to turn a 14-point deficit into a four-point win, Staley said, “Their ability to score more points than we did in the second half.”
Four Kentucky players were available for interviews after the game — Mathies, Evans, O’Neill and Bria Goss — and all four said Mitchell’s positive attitude in the halftime locker room was the reason they felt the confidence to get back in the game Thursday.
“It was very important to try to figure out a way to just get the (second) half started off on a positive note,” Mitchell said.
“Enough negative stuff had happened. Everybody was there, everybody saw what happened. There wasn’t a whole lot for me to talk about there. We had to try to find a way out.”
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