- Associated Press - Sunday, February 26, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A’ja Wilson is bringing a deep-rooted objective along with South Carolina’s latest Southeastern Conference title to next week’s league tournament.

“We really want that No. 1 seed” in the NCAA Tournament, Wilson said Sunday. “Since we don’t have it, it’s something we’re going to fight for.”

The fight continues next week at the SEC tournament in Greenville, where a third straight championship could move South Carolina - projected as a No. 2 seed in the last NCAA reveal - up a notch to where it’s been the past two seasons.

“We’re focused on that,” Wilson said.

Wilson had 25 points and 10 rebounds to lift the seventh-ranked Gamecocks to a 95-87 victory over No. 22 Kentucky, winning their fourth straight SEC title.

Kaela Davis added 20 points for South Carolina (24-4, 14-2), who’ll clinched the crown alone after No. 3 Mississippi State lost its second straight game, this one 82-64 to Tennessee to close the regular season. South Carolina had locked up the No. 1 seed for next week’s SEC tournament even if Mississippi State had won, a result of its 64-61 victory last month over the Bulldogs.

A week ago, the Gamecocks’ chances seemed dead with a 62-60 loss at Missouri that left Mississippi State a game in front with just two to play. But the Wildcats stunned the third-ranked Bulldogs on Thursday night to set the stage for another South Carolina celebration.

“Here we are again,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley told the cheering crowd.

Kentucky (20-9, 11-5) had hoped to add a second stunner after beating Mississippi State. Instead, South Carolina started with 7-of-7 shooting and opened up a double-digit lead in the opening two quarters.

The Wildcats had cut the lead to 93-87 on Makenzie Cann’s 3-pointer with 11.6 seconds to go. But Allisha Gray’s two foul shots extended the Gamecocks’ lead and Kentucky lost its fourth straight in the series.

South Carolina had a scary moment in the final quarter when Alaina Coates, who missed the Texas A&M; game with a sprained right ankle, went to the ground for several moments before heading to the locker room. She returned the bench to the loud cheers of fans, although with the Gamecocks in control, she didn’t get back in.

Staley said Coates could’ve returned to the game. South Carolina instead took the safe route, she said.

Taylor Murray had a career-high 29 points for Kentucky.

Makayla Epps, the Wildcats’ leading scorer coming in, was held to 10 points - seven fewer than her average - on 3-of-7 shooting.

Gray finished with 17 points while Coates had 13 points and nine rebounds.

THE BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats had hoped to carry momentum from their win over Mississippi State into Colonial Life Arena. But four of their starters had two or more fouls in the first two quarters, including Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator. Those two, who average more than 32 points a game, were a combined 1 of 5 shooting for five points in the first 20 minutes.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks were on target with their offense, but not so much early on with their defense. The team that has given up just 55 points a game this year - second in the SEC - allowed 40 points to Kentucky. That’s the most South Carolina has had scored upon it by halftime this season, including a loss to No. 1 UConn earlier this month.

MORE SATISFYING

Staley believes each title is special. This one, though, holds even more meaning because the Gamecocks faced some challenges Staley did not have in her other title seasons. “I thought we would take some hits,” Staley said. “So this is pretty special.”

BAD PLAN?

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell blamed himself for South Carolina’s hot start, saying the plan for limiting the Gamecocks’ post stars of Wilson and Coates led to too much open space on the floor. The Gamecocks hit their first seven shots, including two by Wilson and one by Coates.

“I think that’s on me,” Mitchell said.

UP NEXT

Kentucky heads to SEC tournament in Greenville next week.

South Carolina heads to SEC tournament in Greenville next week.

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