COLUMBIA, South Carolina — No. 2 South Carolina got some great play from Alaina Coates to outlast No. 18 Kentucky, then some even better news about injured star Tiffany Mitchell heading to Monday night's showdown with No. 1 Connecticut.
Coates had 27 points and 13 rebounds in the Gamecocks' 78-67 victory over the Wildcats on Thursday night, a performance South Carolina (22-0, 10-0 Southeastern Conference) desperately needed with Mitchell sitting out the final two quarters after crashing hard to the floor and bruising her lower back.
But Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said Mitchell could've played against Kentucky and will be ready for the three-time defending NCAA champs on Monday.
Staley said the frightening looking fall was not so serious and she chose not to put Mitchell back in after the two-time SEC player of the year returned to the bench.
"Tiffany could probably use the rest," Staley said.
With Mitchell out, it was up to post players Coates and A'ja Wilson to carry the load.
"We knew we had to fill that gap," said Wilson, who finished with 18 points.
Coates scored 12 points in the final nine minutes, including a three-point play with 2:20 left to put South Carolina ahead 71-66 after Kentucky cut an 11-point lead to 68-66.
Coates had her fourth double-double in the past five games to beat the Wildcats (15-6, 4-6) with Mitchell watching from the bench.
She spent several minutes face down in obvious pain before being helped off the court. She returned to the bench in the third quarter with what the team said was a lower back bruise.
Makayla Epps scored 17 points, all in the second half, for Kentucky, which had lost four of five games.
"This was a tough loss on the road, a tough game," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "But I think we benefited from it."
As time ran out, fans began to chant "We want UConn." Be careful, what you wish for. The three-time defending NCAA champions ended South Carolina's 22-0 start and reign at No. 1 a year ago in blowout fashion, 87-62. The Huskies, behind Breanna Stewart, look even stronger this season.
Staley said her team will be ready to play. "Whether they'll be ready to do all the things necessary to beat the tradition of UConn, we'll see," she said.
The Gamecocks won their 45th straight home game.
South Carolina entered trying to stay perfect for a second straight year heading to its showdown against three-time defending NCAA champion No. 1 Connecticut here Monday night.
The Gamecocks played without injured senior starter Asia Dozier, who injured her right hand in beating Texas A&M last Sunday night.
Still, South Carolina pushed past Kentucky with a 15-9 burst to close the second quarter and take a 35-30 lead into the break.
Epps, the SEC's second leading scorer, was held without a point in the opening two quarters. But she turned that around after halftime, making eight straight baskets in the Wildcats comeback.
Kentucky: Wildcats are the only SEC team that's beaten South Carolina at least once a year since coach Dawn Staley came on board eight seasons ago. The Gamecocks defeated Kentucky 73-62 on the road earlier this season.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks are looking for their ninth win this season over a ranked opponent, a run that includes four wins over Top 10 teams. Both A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates are averaging double figure points and rebounds against Top 25 opponents this season.
South Carolina forwards Wilson and Coates have a timing down that's rare for two of the game's tallest players. The pair combined for five assists, most of them to the other waiting even lower on the block.
Wilson said it comes from the two area prep stars playing alongside each other in youth leagues.
Khadijah Sessions gave the Gamecocks a lift with her improbable, 65-footer for a 3-pointer to close the third quarter after Kentucky had closed within 54-53. Sessions launched a two-handed shot off the backboard that rattled in to thrill the crowd and inspire her South Carolina teammates.
"Globetrotter D," A'ja Wilson said, smiling about the shot.
"We used that and the energy of the crowd to keep going to the next quarter," Coates said.
Kentucky returns home to play LSU on Sunday.
South Carolina plays host to No. 1 Connecticut on Monday night.