LEXINGTON, Ky. – Matthew Mitchell said before the game that it would take just one game.
One game to erase a four-game losing streak, one game to put Kentucky women’s basketball back into the middle of the crowded Southeastern Conference race and one game to get the Wildcats back on track.
Mitchell got his game.
The UK Hoops team turned up the defensive pressure and found a solution to its rebounding problems in a dominating 61-47 victory over South Carolina on Thursday night in front of 4,677 fans in Memorial Coliseum.
The Wildcats (13-10, 3-5 SEC) held the Gamecocks (9-12, 1-7 SEC) to a season-low 23.6 percent from the floor and out-rebounded the Gamecocks by a 49-29 margin, which tied UK's highest rebounding margin of the season.
“We are just so happy to win the game,” Mitchell said. “It has been a tough couple of weeks to say the least, losing four in a row. Tonight was a very important game for our team to come out and win and I was very happy that we were able to establish some defensive intensity early in the game.”
One of the biggest problems surrounding UK during its four-game losing streak was its ability to rebound the ball. The Wildcats have held all 23 of their opponents at or under 50 percent shooting this year, but they've been unable to capitalize on many of the defensive stops in close games with rebounds.
With a three-day layoff in between their last game and Thursday night's matchup, Mitchell made a concerted effort to correct the Wildcats' rebounding problem, and it appears he might have already found a solution.
Senior center Eleia Roddy (Columbus, Ohio) led the rebounding effort with 11 boards, and UK allowed only three second-chance points. On the flip side, the Wildcats pulled down 16 offensive rebounds for 19 second-chance points.
Three of UK's guards pulled down four or more boards, a huge emphasis of Mitchell's during this week of practice.
“In the past few days all we've worked on in practice is rebounding,” said sophomore guard Amber Smith (Winter Haven, Fla.), who pulled down three rebounds. “In one practice, we did all rebounding. We knew that we were going to out-rebound them because we had to do it.”
Roddy led the rebounding effort for UK with 11 boards, but she also added 11 points for her SEC-high 10th double-double of the season. She had help on the scoring side from Smith with a team-high 13 points, sophomore forward Victoria Dunlap (Nashville, Tenn.) with 10 and junior guard Amani Franklin (Stone Mountain, Ga.), who celebrated her 21st birthday on Thursday, with nine.
The Wildcats left little doubt in returning to the SEC picture Thursday night. UK stormed out to a 14-4 lead and never let off the pedal. UK led by as many as 24 points and finished with its largest margin of victory (14) since beating Miami (Ohio) by 25 points on Jan. 3.
South Carolina played without its two top scorers (Demetress Adams and Brionna Dickerson) because of injuries, and UK made sure their absences would be hard felt. Freshman guard Lakeisha Sutton finished with 15 points, but she was just about all the offense South Carolina could muster on Thursday.
The Wildcats held South Carolina to just four field goals in the first half on 14.3 percent shooting en route to a 15-point halftime lead. At one point, the Gamecocks had just one field goal to eight turnovers, and they finished the game with more giveaways (17) than baskets (13).
“What I love most about our defense was the intensity of our defense,” Mitchell said. “We came out right away and made a statement that we were going to make it tough for them to get anything going offensively. We stopped dribble penetration, got in the passing lanes and that's why we got off to a great start.”
The win won't cure everything. UK continued to struggle with turnovers (21) and let a 24-point lead dissipate to eight points in final minutes, but it was the type of victory UK needed.
“To get a 14-point win in this conference,” Mitchell said, “we'll take it every time.”
A tough battle into the postseason likely still lies ahead, but UK is back in the muddled picture of the SEC race with a huge game against nationally ranked Vanderbilt on Sunday.
“With our record at the halfway point it is obviously important for us to win every game we can,” Mitchell said. “I feel good about it and still think that we have some improvements we can make.”
Celebrating the 23rd annual National Girls and Women Sports Day on Sunday, the Wildcats will take on the No. 20/22 Commodores in Memorial Coliseum at 1 p.m. ET. Four special VIPs, Ukari Figgs, Jenny Dalton Hill, Passion Richardson and Ashley Robinson, will join student-athletes from each of UK's female varsity sports teams for a pre-game autograph session beginning at noon on the concourse.