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GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley had no worries about how her team would perform without all-Southeastern Conference forward Alaina Coates in the lineup, winning three of the past four games with the senior mostly on the sidelines.
The fifth-ranked Gamecocks will have to handle it one more time if they hope to win a third straight SEC Tournament title.
"It's starts with the coaches," Staley said. "We don't fret who we don't have. We have to move forward with who we have available."
That means Coates, who tweaked her bad right ankle in the third one more time and had to be helped to the locker room. Staley said Coates won't play Sunday against either No. 6 Mississippi State. .
A'ja Wilson stepped up big time once more in Coates' absence, with 26 points, eight rebounds and five blocks for an 89-77 win over the 20th-ranked Wildcats. She also helped ignite a late Gamecock run after Kentucky (21-10) had sliced a 14-point lead down to 75-73 with about four minutes to go.
"I was just thinking we had to win this ballgame," Wilson said.
After Alyssa Rice's layup left South Carolina up by two, Wilson followed with a pair of foul shots to start a closing 14-4 run.
Coates missed Friday's quarterfinal blowout of Georgia. She got in for four minutes this time, but left the court in third quarter when she split two defenders, got fouled attempting a layup and crumpled to the ground in pain.
Coates was helped in the locker room before returning to the bench with a boot on her on her injured ankle. Staley said Coates would be ready for the NCAA Tournament in two weeks.
Kaela Davis and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan had 17 points each for the Gamecocks.
Makayla Epps had 31 points and fellow all-SEC first-team teammate Evelyn Akhator added 24 for the Wildcats (21-10). They have lost six in row to South Carolina.
Kentucky played without starting guard Taylor Murray, sidelined with a neck strain suffered late in Friday's quarterfinal win over Alabama. Murray's status going forward is day-to-day.
"Down the stretch, got a couple of foul calls, got a couple of free throws we didn't execute as well, missed a couple of shots, couldn't get the rebound," Epps said.
THE BIG PICTURE
Kentucky: The Wildcats came in short-handed with Taylor Murray's absence and nearly took even more hits as all-Southeastern Conference first team players Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator both took hard hits in the opening half. Epps was whacked in the middle of second-quarter scrum and sat on the floor for a few minutes. She went to the bench for a brief time before coming back in. Akhator's situation looked more severe, as she came up hobbling it appeared she hurt an ankle. She limped to the bench and got her right ankle taped before returning to action. Both seemed to be fine once they were back on the court.
South Carolina: The absence of Alaina Coates may have uncovered a new Gamecock post terror in Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, a 6-foot-2 freshman who's mostly spent the season behind the 6-4 Coates and 6-5 A'ja Wilson. Herbert Harrigan, starting a second straight game for Coates, hit all seven of her shots in the opening half and had two of the Gamecocks' four blocks. Kentucky had no answer for her length and activeness under the basket.
PLAYING FOR HISTORY
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said her program was playing for continue to show it's among the best in the SEC. The Gamecocks would look to join Tennessee as the only teams to win this event three straight times. The Vols, though, have done it twice from 1998-2000 and 2010-12.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said guard Taylor Murray was in the concussion protocol. He was optimistic about her return in time for the NCAA Tournament. Also he had no word yet on guard Jaida Roper, who hit her head hard and had to be helped off the court. Mitchell said Roper was under evaluation.
Kentucky will await its eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
South Carolina will play for its third straight SEC Tournament championship against No. 6 Mississippi State.
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