DULUTH, Ga. – South Carolina picked a bad time for what coach Dawn Staley called the worst showing of the season.
The price of the No. 5 Gamecocks' 68-58 loss to No. 12 Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference semifinal may be the opportunity to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"It really is out of our control at this point," Staley said. "We had control of it, if we were to keep winning. At this point, I can't even elaborate on it."
Bria Goss scored 14 points to lead the Wildcats (24-7) to their fourth SEC tournament final in the last five years.
South Carolina (27-4), the SEC regular-season champion, struggled early. The Gamecocks committed 16 turnovers, most coming in the first 10 minutes.
Their only previous semifinal appearance came in 2012.
"Obviously, we're disappointed in losing the basketball game, but more disappointed in how we played," Staley said. "This is the first I've seen our team play this poorly all season long. Obviously, the first half was one that we couldn't recover from."
The Gamecocks scored the game's first points on a basket by Elem Ibiam, who had 16 points. Kentucky scored the next 12 points and never lost the lead.
"I don't think they did anything different than they normally do," said Staley of Kentucky's 12-0 run. "I think it was all us. It was all us making really uncharacteristic decisions with the basketball. It came from everywhere.
"It was not just one person. It came from mainly our starting five, with the exception of Elem. She really didn't have the ball to make decisions. When she did, she put the ball in the hole."
Ibiam, the 6-foot-4 center, ended South Carolina's 7-minute scoring drought with an inside basket, but the Gamecocks' struggles kept coming. When Epps scored to give Kentucky a 19-11 lead, South Carolina's 11 turnovers matched its points.
"We agonized through all of them," Staley said.
South Carolina's Tiffany Mitchell, selected by coaches as the SEC player of the year, had 11 points while making only 4 of 12 shots.
Trailing by 12 points, Staley pulled her starters with 1:16 remaining.
Staley didn't want to speculate on where her team might land in the seeding for the NCAA tournament.
"At this point, I have no idea," Staley said. "It's hard for me to project that sitting here and not being able to accomplish one of the goals of winning the SEC tournament championship."
DeNesha Stallworth and Linnae Harper each had 12 points for Kentucky (24-7), which will play Tennessee or Texas A&M on Sunday. The Wildcats won their only title in 1982.
South Carolina never made a serious comeback bid, pulling no closer than eight points in the second half.
Kentucky lost to Texas A&M in last year's final and lost to Tennessee in the 2010 and 2011 finals.
Now the Wildcats have another chance for their elusive championship.
"I'm really, really happy about today," said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell. "But I do want to stay focused on what we came down here to do, and that's to win the championship. ... I would really be happy for them if they can prepare and finish the job tomorrow."
Kentucky had only five turnovers.
Goss sank back-to-back 3-pointers to give Kentucky its big lead of the half at 33-20. Ibiam had 12 points in the half, including South Carolina's last three baskets before the break, to trail 37-29.
Aleighsa Welch had 12 points for South Carolina, and Makayla Epps added 10 points for Kentucky.