Zia Cooke Kentucky

South Carolina's Zia Cooke drops off two points over Kentucky during first-half action in Columbia, S.C. on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. 

South Carolina’s game notes boast several eye-popping measurables.

Among the numbers are the wingspans of forwards Laeticia Amihere (6-10), Aliyah Boston (6-9.5), Victaria Saxton (6-5) and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan (6-4) and the speed of guards Brea Beal, Zia Cooke, Ty Harris and Destanni Henderson, who can all cover three-quarters court in 3.1 to 3.14 seconds.

All were on display for the No. 4 Gamecocks on Thursday night against No. 13 Kentucky.

Behind its suffocating defense at Colonial Life Arena, South Carolina (13-1, 1-0 SEC) never trailed and routed the Wildcats (11-2, 0-1 SEC) 99-72 in the teams’ SEC opener. It’s the Gamecocks’ seventh straight victory in conference openers.

GAME PHOTOS

“[We] were pretty locked in. I thought the first half was pretty special to be quite honest,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “[We] executed. [We] locked in. [We] played the ball screen as well as you could have played them.

“We made it very difficult for them to become comfortable and get shots in their comfort zone.”

Added the coach moments later, “[We’re] totally committed to it. [We] don’t like to get scored on.”

Freshmen Beal and Cooke each had 15 points for the home team, while fellow rookies Boston and Amihere added 14 each. Henderson had a career-high six assists.

With a frequent full-court press defense South Carolina, as a team, forced 14 turnovers and pounced for nine steals. Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, the unanimous national freshman of the year last season, scored 28 points and grabbed six rebounds but had six turnovers.

“I think what Brea was able to do was tire her out,” Staley said. “We just exhausted her. It was 28 points, but they were insignificant points. … Overall, having Brea on her, having LeLe come out and play her off the bench, having Kiki on her a little bit … I think it exhausted her to the point where she probably didn’t want to shoot as many shots as she could. 

“That benefits us.”

“Pressure,” Beal said. “That was our biggest goal for the game, pressure everybody. Once we pressure, we force them to turn over the ball and kind of get easy layups off that.”

Said Boston, “I feel like, since day one, we’ve known what our defense can do. Because in practice we’re very competitive and we really do a great job of pushing each other. I wouldn’t say our defense is underappreciated, because within our team, we know what we can do.”

Though the teams have played close games in the past — last season’s two meetings were determined by four and eight points — Thursday’s tilt was never in doubt.

Back-to-back mid-range jumpers from Harris and Herbert Harrigan pushed what was a 21-point halftime lead to 23 at the 4:16 mark of the third quarter.

The quarter was highlighted by its final sequence.

Saxton intercepted an inbounds pass near half court, dished ahead to Cooke, who took a few dribbles and slid a pass to LeLe Grissett, who banked in a buzzer-beating layup.

The Gamecocks led by 27, 79-52, after three quarters.

The fourth quarter was just a formality.

South Carolina led by 21 points, at 49-29, at halftime thanks in large part to a suffocating defense that forced 11 turnovers and pounced for seven steals in the opening 20 minutes. Beal had three steals, while Cooke and Henderson each had two.

The Gamecocks jumped out to a 9-2 lead behind a defense that pounced for three early steals and forced Kentucky to miss its first six shots, including four from 3-point range.

Beal scored five of the home team’s first 11 points with a layup and three free throws. A steal from Cooke and a conversion from Beal pushed the lead to 11-2 before Kentucky’s Howard sank two 3s in a 47-second span to cut the visitor’s deficit to 13-8.

But then it was all Gamecocks.

SC went on a 9-2 run highlighted two jumpers from Boston, one from Herbert Harrigan and a Cooke corner 3. The latter gave the home team a 22-10 advantage, its first double-digit lead.

As she has several times this season, LeLe Grissett gave South Carolina a boost coming out of the first quarter break. The junior scored underneath on a feed from Destanni Henderson for the team’s first points of the second quarter then came down with two rebounds that led to points that extended the home team’s lead to 29-16.

She then forced Howard to dribble a ball out of bounds in front of the Gamecock bench.

“I thought they just came out very aggressive. We got rattled early against a real tough physical defense,” Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “[They’re] a really good team with really good athletes and they played hard tonight.

“We were just kind of back on our heels all night long and had a hard time finding a rhythm.”

The swarming defense continued.

Beal swatted Kentucky’s Tatyana Wyatt seconds before Amihere raced coast to coast to lay in a bucket to give the Gamecocks a 35-19 lead. Then, after she snagged two of the Gamecocks’ three offensive rebounds on the possession, Boston banked in a layup to push the lead to 20, at 42-21.

Moments later Kentucky’s Chasity Patterson threw a pass to Howard to skidded off her knee and out of bounds. A minute later the Colonial Life Arena crowd rained down its first “Defense! Defense!” chant. 

After the runaway victory, Staley weighed both sides of the growing hype surrounding her team.

Said the coach, “I was actually talking to [assistant coach] Jolette [Law] on the bench. I said, ‘I’m not going to drink the Kool-Aid.’ But I tell our team, when we play well, when we’re locked in, we can probably beat anybody in the country.’”