By GARY B. GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Aliyah Boston had 21 points and 11 rebounds, Zia Cooke scored 10 of her 20 points during a 16-0 second-quarter rally and top-ranked South Carolina pulled away in the fourth quarter to rout Kentucky 95-66 on Thursday night.
After battling back to win at Mississippi State on Sunday, the Gamecocks (17-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) overcame another road challenge from the Wildcats to retain a share of first place in the conference.
Kentucky’s 16-1 run over the first and second quarters provided a 31-21 lead with 5:27 left in the half and a huge dose of confidence against the reigning national champions. But South Carolina quickly seized momentum. Boston, who was 9-of-11 shooting, responded with a jumper and Cooke added a 3-pointer, a three-point play and two layups during the surge to lead 37-33 at the break.
“It was just me playing my role and letting the game come to me and just being ready when the ball does come to me,” said Cooke, who made 8-of-14 shots from the field with five layups. “We’ve been down before, the game is full of highs and lows at times. We just continued to keep our pace and do what we do.”
The Gamecocks maintained a small cushion after three quarters before going 13 of 17 from the floor in the fourth to pull away.
Maddie Scherr scored a career-high 25 points with five 3s for the Wildcats (8-9, 0-4), who fell to their second top-10 opponent this week. Kentucky lost 67-48 to now-No. 5 LSU on Sunday at Rupp Arena.
Jada Walker added 17 points and Robyn Benton 10 for Kentucky, which shot 42% but was outrebounded just 35-29 by the taller Gamecocks.
“I just went in and tried to talk to them about the positives,” Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy said. “For three quarters against the No. 1 team in the country, you showed what you were made of. They made the run in the fourth, we can learn from that.”
South Carolina nearly doubled Kentucky in scoring in the paint (62-32) on the way to shooting a season-high 64% (35 of 55). Kamilla Cardoso added 12 points and Laeticia Amihere 11 as the Gamecocks also dominated bench scoring 39-10.
Thursday was the teams’ first meeting since Kentucky upset the top-seeded Gamecocks 64-62 to win the SEC Tournament title. South Carolina went on to win its second national title and hasn’t looked back, though it entered the contest in a four-way tie atop the league.
South Carolina: A double-digit deficit didn’t faze the Gamecocks, who had plenty of time to regroup and use their size and speed to reclaim the lead. Cooke sparked the rally and contributed key plays whenever needed to help her team survive another road test. Red-hot shooting also helped, as they surpassed their 63% accuracy against Auburn.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to let things play out,” coach Dawn Staley said of the pivotal run. “I just wanted to take Kentucky’s best punch and see how we’d respond to it. …. We’re going to feel that. The most important thing is not to panic.”
Kentucky: The Wildcats stayed within reach but just couldn’t stop Boston or Cooke, who found a lot of room inside for layups. Scherr made 10 of 15 from the field and 5 of 7 from deep to surpass her previous best of 22 points on Sunday. Inside scoring was another story against the nation’s top shot-blocking team, which averages 9.6 blocks; South Carolina rejected 11 attempts.
“I know they were going to fall eventually,” Scherr said. “I had all the encouragement from my teammates and coaches, and that’s what got me there.”
South Carolina: Hosts Missouri on Sunday.
Kentucky: Visits Florida on Sunday to begin a two-game road swing.
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