NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Kentucky Wildcats came to the Southeastern Conference women's tournament needing a great run to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Thanks to four wins in as many days, their berth is secure as SEC tournament champs.
“Nope! We are not on the bubble,” second-year Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy said. “We have our ticket punched! We are going!"
Dre'una Edwards hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 4.2 seconds left, and the Wildcats rallied from 15 points down to upset top-ranked South Carolina 64-62 on Sunday to win their first SEC tournament championship since 1982.
Kentucky set up the shot out of a timeout with 11 seconds left. Pass the ball to whoever was open, then catch and shoot. South Carolina tried, but couldn't foul in time.
“I had to let it fly,” Edwards said.
Elzy started running up the sideline as soon Edwards' shot went up, knowing it was good. Kentucky senior Rhyne Howard watched as the ball went through the air and compared it to a moment in the movies.
“We knew it was game,” Howard said. “We knew we just won.”
Kentucky hadn't even reached this game since 2014. These seventh-seeded Wildcats (19-11) won their 10th straight game with this the biggest yet after knocking off sixth-ranked LSU and No. 18 Tennessee to get to this championship.
It marks a dramatic turnaround for a program that started SEC play 2-8 with Elzy suspending Edwards for four games only to become the first to knock off this tournament's top three seeds to win the title. Kentucky is the first No. 7 seed to win with ninth-seeded Auburn in 1997 the only lower seed to ever win this event.
The Wildcats not only snapped South Carolina's 18-game winning streak this season, they also ended the Gamecocks' search for a third straight SEC tournament title for the regular season champs.
“Hats off to Kentucky,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “They’re hot. They’re streaking. We’ve been on both sides, this side and the other side, and super happy for Kyra and her program and their ability to weather some storms early on and find themselves as our SEC Tournament champions.”
South Carolina (29-2) led 45-30 with 4:45 left in the third quarter seemingly minutes away from cutting down the nets again. But the Gamecocks didn't score after Aliyah Boston's jumper with 5:04 remained that put them up 62-53.
“I didn’t really feel like we took our foot off the gas in the fourth quarter,” Boston said. “I think we were playing, and they just found different ways to score.”
The Wildcats closed the game on an 11-0 run. Howard lost the ball with no foul called when she went down in the lane with 18.3 seconds left, giving the ball back to South Carolina. Zia Cooke missed both free throws with 16.4 seconds left to set up the final sequence.
After Kentucky took the lead, Destanni Henderson threw up the ball from just past mid-court and hit just right of the rim, setting off a wild celebration by Kentucky.
Edwards finished with 27 points, 12 in the fourth quarter with three 3s including the game-winner. Howard finished with 18 points.
South Carolina should still go into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
Boston posted her 24th straight double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Cooke finished with 15 points.
South Carolina led 21-18 after the first and 30-21 at halftime after holding Kentucky to three points in the second. The Gamecocks were up 55-43 at the end of the third.
Kentucky: Kentucky set a program record making 12 3-pointers in its semifinal upset of 18th-ranked Tennessee, shooting 50% from beyond the arc. Against the nation’s fourth-stingiest scoring defense, the Wildcats finished 6 of 14 (42.9%) after knocking down 5 of 8 in the second half.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks had only a 32-26 edge in scoring in the paint even though they outrebounded Kentucky 44-32. ... They missed their final seven shots of the game. Staley was more concerned with their defense: “We gave up 21 points in the fourth quarter."
MORE SEC HISTORY
A year ago, Staley joined Georgia coach Joni Taylor as the first Black women to coach in a Power Five tournament championship. This time, Kyra Elzy in her second season at Kentucky joined Staley to make it two straight for the SEC and Elzy took home the title this time.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25