South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is trying not to get ahead of herself.
As good as her freshmen-powered, fourth-ranked Gamecocks appear to be — and they looked plenty good in a 99-72 win over No. 13 Kentucky on Thursday night — they’re still very young, and often young players make mistakes.
“I coach on the edge of them not playing perfect basketball,” Staley said. “Because I don’t want their heads to get too big. But I also want them to be confident in what we’re doing.”
Confidence was not a problem against the Wildcats (11-2, 0-1 Southeastern Conference).
Freshmen Brea Beal and Zia Cooke led the Gamecocks (13-1, 1-0) with 15 points apiece while two more first-year players in Aliyah Boston and Laeticia Amihere had 14 points each.
It was quite a showing for South Carolina’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class.
If the Gamecocks play as ruthlessly as they did in romping past a Kentucky squad that features an All-America candidate, perhaps it will live up to its preseason projection as the SEC’s regular-season champion.
But as Staley warned, there’s a long way to go.
“There’s a rematch. In Lexington,” she said. “We got to be aware of that.”
The Gamecocks opened a 12-point lead in the first quarter and stretched it to 21 by halftime. Constantly carving through Kentucky’s overmatched defense, South Carolina had nine players score by halftime, and the Gamecocks’ defense had forced 11 turnovers, seven of them steals.
The Wildcats got a game-high 28 points from star guard Rhyne Howard, but South Carolina also forced her to commit six turnovers. Kentucky managed to stay close early thanks to its offensive rebounding but became flustered by the Gamecocks’ relentless pace and tenacity on defense.
“We got rattled early against a real tough physical defense. Just a good team, with really good athletes,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We were just kind of back on our heels all night long and had a hard time finding rhythm.”
Staley credited her team’s defense, which accepts the challenge of not letting opponents score on it and gets angry when they do. Kentucky had 14 turnovers while South Carolina blocked three shots and recorded nine steals.
The Gamecocks could also barely miss from the field, shooting 61% and bombarding Kentucky 60-24 in points in the paint.
South Carolina finished with six players in double figures.
Chasity Patterson added 15 points for the Wildcats.
Kentucky: As good as Howard is, Kentucky needs some help around her. The Wildcats struggled to run against the Gamecocks and had no answer after their offensive rebounding slowed.
South Carolina: There was no rust from a long holiday break and the Gamecocks’ three starting freshmen led the first-half surge. South Carolina executed its game plan efficiently and finished shooting 61% from the field (36 of 59).
Kentucky has a chance to keep its ranking or at least not drop too far if it can beat Tennessee on Sunday. The Gamecocks, as they have been throughout the season, won’t move up unless Connecticut, Oregon or Oregon State loses.
With less than 4 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Kentucky tried a length-of-the-court inbound pass. It flamed out at midcourt, where South Carolina’s Victaria Saxton grabbed it.
She quickly passed to Cooke, who took one dribble and touch-passed the ball to Lele Grissett. Grissett just beat the buzzer for a 27-point lead.
Kentucky hosts No. 22 Tennessee in its home conference opener. Coach Matthew Mitchell began his college career as a graduate assistant under the legendary Pat Summitt at Tennessee in 2000.
South Carolina tips off at Alabama on Sunday. The Gamecocks have won 15 straight against the Crimson Tide in a streak that began in 2009.