GREENVILLE, S.C. – Playing without point guard Taylor Murray, the 20th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats fought hard, but fell to No. 5 South Carolina 89-77 on Saturday afternoon in the semifinals of the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament.
Murray was injured late in Friday’s quarterfinal win over Alabama. She missed Saturday’s game with whiplash and is considered day-to-day.
This was the second game between the two teams in the last six days. South Carolina beat Kentucky in the regular season finale on Sunday, 95-87, in Columbia.
In Saturday’s game, Kentucky (21-10) got huge efforts from its two seniors, Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator. Epps had a season-high 31 points, nine rebounds and three assists in the contest. This was the fifth time in Epps’ storied career that she has scored at least 30 points, and the first time since December 1, 2016, when she scored 30 against Oklahoma at Memorial Coliseum.
Akhator recorded her 29th career double-double with 24 points and 11 rebounds. The double-double was the 16th this season for the senior from Lagos, Nigeria.
Sophomore Maci Morris added 11 points for Kentucky, while junior Alyssa Rice had eight points and six rebounds.
Despite a huge size disadvantage, Kentucky owned the boards in the game. The Wildcats grabbed 43 rebounds, compared to just 26 for the Gamecocks. However, South Carolina shot 57.1 percent from the floor in the game, and hit 21-of-27 free throws. Kentucky shot 41.7 percent from the field, but only two-of-19 (10.5 percent) from behind the arc.
Much like they did in Sunday’s game, South Carolina came out hot, hitting eight of their first 11 shots to take a 17-10 lead. Kentucky battled back behind Epps, who scored four straight to cut the lead to 23-18. But South Carolina scored on its final possession to take a 27-20 lead at the end of the period. Kentucky hit 10-of-16 (62.5 percent) from the floor in the quarter, but the Gamecocks hit 13-of-18 (72.2 percent) of their shots.
In the second quarter, South Carolina continued to shoot the ball very well, hitting nine-of-16 (56.3 percent) from the floor. Meanwhile, Kentucky cooled off, hitting just six of its 17 shots (35.3 percent) in the period. South Carolina was able to take advantage, extending the lead to as many as 13 before settling for a 47-36 lead at the break.
Epps and Akhator kept Kentucky in the game in the first half, scoring 26 of the Wildcats’ 36 points.
In the third quarter, South Carolina appeared to take control of the game by extending its lead to as many as 14. But with the Gamecocks leading 60-47, Kentucky put together a 13-2 run to cut the lead to just two, at 62-60 late in the third period. Epps and Akhator combined to score 11 of Kentucky’s 13 points in the run. South Carolina scored the final point of the period to take a 63-60 advantage into the final frame.
As the fourth quarter started, it once again looked like South Carolina was going to pull away. But Kentucky had yet another answer. The Gamecocks led by as many as six early in the fourth, but Kentucky fought back, getting within three at 70-67 on an Epps tip-in. Kentucky eventually cut the lead to two on a Rice layup that cut the lead to 75-73. But that’s as close as the Wildcats could get before the Gamecocks finished the game on a 12-3 run.