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No. 9 Kentucky's offense struggles in 68-59 loss

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)

Three times in its last six games, No. 9 Kentucky's high-powered offense has shot 35 percent or less.

However, Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell isn't worried yet.

''It's a long, long season. Sometimes you go through patches like that,'' Mitchell said after their 68-59 loss to No. 10 South Carolina on Thursday night.

South Carolina (15-1, 3-0 SEC), held the league's best offense to 33 points below their average, set a school record with 14 blocked shots and forced the Wildcats (13-3, 1-2) to shoot just 32 percent (23 of 73). Kentucky was the eighth opponent this year to shoot that poorly or worse against the Gamecocks.

For long stretches of the game the Wildcats looked hesitant, especially inside. When the Gamecocks weren't blocking shots, Kentucky was shooting tentative and short. The Wildcats missed 19 shots in the lane.

''You could actually see it,'' sophomore guard Tina Roy said of the uncertainty in Kentucky players' eyes. ''Coach Staley said keep going at them.''

Mitchell didn't think his team played scared. He thought they just had a bad night shooting.

''I didn't think we gave poor effort tonight,'' Mitchell said. ''We just couldn't find a way to get the ball in the basket.''

The Wildcats lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2012, when they lost three in a row to LSU, Tennessee and Alabama. They have started the SEC season at 1-2 for the first time since 2011.

The Gamecocks trailed 10-4 early, but outscored the Wildcats 50-22 over the next 27 minutes. They had 10 more rebounds than Kentucky, who came into the game third in the SEC in rebounding margin averaging 8.5 more boards than its opponents.

The Wildcats twice went almost 4 minutes in the second half without scoring a point, falling behind 52-30 with 9 minutes left. But they clawed back into the game, cutting South Carolina's lead to 59-51 with 3:04 to go.

Tiffany Mitchell made two free throws and 40 seconds later stole the ball from Janee Thompson and found Olivia Gaines for a wide open layup that put the Gamecocks ahead 63-51 with 1:54 left.

The Wildcats cut the lead to eight again before Coates' layup with 1:03 left gave her a fifth double-double in 16 games.

Mitchell scored 17 points. Welch had 16 points and 14 rebounds. Freshman Alaina Coates added 10 points and 17 rebounds and Elem Ibiam had six blocks.

Thompson, Samarie Walker and Azia Bishop each scored 12 points for Kentucky.

It was South Carolina's first game as a top 10 team against a top 10 team in almost 12 years and only the second since 1982. The game drew a raucous crowd of 5,689 when the team used to struggle to get more than a couple hundred fans when Staley took over six years ago. She is 3-4 against top 10 teams, with two of the wins coming over Kentucky.

The schedule is favorable for the Gamecocks. None of their next eight games are against the SEC's top 25 teams or Florida, which joins South Carolina atop the league at 3-0. But then the Gamecocks final five games are against all the teams they miss.

''The last five game of our SEC season are eye openers,'' Staley said.'' So we have to take care of what we need to take care of.''

One of those games is a rematch against Kentucky in Lexington on Feb. 20. Thompson expects her Wildcats to play better then.

''It was just one of those types of nights,'' she said.

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