UK Hoops goes for 18th straight win

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The No. 5/4 Kentucky women’s basketball team takes its nation-long 17-game winning streak on the road when it faces No. 18/14 South Carolina on Thursday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. EST in the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. The game will be televised live on SportSouth, FS Southwest, Sun Sports and Fox Sports South.

Fans can follow the UK Hoops team on Twitter at @UKHoopCats and use #UKHoops to comment on the game.

The Wildcats improved to 18-1 overall, 6-0 in the Southeastern Conference with a commanding 97-53 win over Auburn on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. After Duke fell to Connecticut on Monday night, the Cats now own the nation’s longest overall winning streak at 17.

Thursday marks the 49th meeting in the all-time series vs. South Carolina and the 18th straight year the teams have played twice in a season as USC is UK’s permanent SEC home-and-home opponent. UK leads the all-time series 30-18, but trails 13-9 when playing in Columbia. The Wildcats won both meetings against the Gamecocks last season, 66-58 in Columbia and 53-50 in Lexington.

Four of the last six matchups have been decided by eight points or less, including the last three. The Wildcats went 2-2 in those close games.

“I think that this is really becoming one of the most hotly-contested rivalries in our conference,” UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We play South Carolina twice every year and as you go back and review the history of the games in the past five years, it is two teams that really, really, play hard and get after each other. It appears the players have great respect for each other and play really hard and compete really hard. We know that we will be in a real battle tomorrow night. Coach Staley is one of the toughest coaches to prepare for. Her teams are hard to prepare for because you know that they will play so incredibly tough so this will be a real test for us. It is one of the toughest defenses we have gone up against in quite some time. We will have to put everything we can into this one and play extremely well to earn a victory at South Carolina tomorrow night.”

South Carolina (16-3-4-2 SEC) enters Thursday night’s game having won two tight victories. The Gamecocks defeated LSU last week at home 66-59 and took a 52-44 win at Florida on Sunday.

Like Kentucky, USC is a balanced scoring team. Seven players average between 12.4 and 4.0 points per game. Sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch leads the Gamecocks in scoring and on the glass with 12.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Freshman Tiffany Mitchell is the only other player averaging double-digit scoring with 10.4 points per game.

South Carolina has one of the top defenses in the conference again this season as it allows an SEC-best 47.6 points per game to go with a field goal percentage defense of 34.3 percent. The Gamecocks also lead the league in rebounding margin at +11.6.

“There is a tremendous amount of toughness with their program,” Mitchell said. “I have always been impressed with how tough they are. They’re a team that never has a bad game. They go to the boards and right now they’re rebounding great from all five positions, so that’s a mindset. So for this game that is going to be one of our focuses. We’re trying to get mentally prepared for that.”

USC is coached by three-time Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley, who is in the midst of her fifth season at the helm of the Gamecocks program. Staley has a career record at South Carolina of 82-61.

For Kentucky, senior guard and All-America candidate A’dia Mathies (Louisville, Ky.) continues to prove why she was selected preseason Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. The reigning SEC Player of the Week leads the league (conference games only) in scoring, averaging 19.8 points per game and is shooting an SEC-high .533 percent (21-of-38) from the 3-point line. She currently ranks in the top 10 of 12 career lists at UK, including third in steals (282) and fourth in scoring (1,727).

In the front court, junior post players DeNesha Stallworth (Richmond, Calif.) and Samarie Walker (West Carrollton, Ohio) are giving Kentucky a dynamic inside presence this season. The duo combine to average 23.5 points and 14.4 rebounds per game and both are shooting over 50 percent from the floor.

The Cats’ “40 minutes of dread” defense has them leading the nation in turnover margin (+10.47), limiting the opponent to 37.2 percent shooting (8th in the SEC), including 27.6 percent from beyond the arc (6th in the SEC), averaging 12.5 steals (3rd in the SEC) and 5.0 blocks per game (4th in the SEC).

UK is 2-1 against ranked teams this season with wins over No. 7/6 Louisville on Dec. 2 and No. 20/21 Texas A&M on Jan. 10. The only loss came at top-ranked Baylor on Nov. 13.

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