It wasn’t the prettiest thing to watch, but it got the desired result. After a bad second half against Mississippi State and a bad game against Missouri, South Carolina overcame its flaws to dispatch gritty Florida 67-56 on Sunday and finish the regular season on a high note.
“I think it was extremely important,” coach Dawn Staley said. “For us to play better at home, to get a win going into the SEC tournament, and for our player’s psyche.”
The No. 14 Gamecocks finished a glittering 23-6, 11-5 SEC, which set a standard for single-season SEC wins and tied the school record for most single-season regular-season wins. Staley improved her SEC win total for the fourth straight year (every year she’s been at USC), and stands just three wins for doing the same with her overall mark.
Never one to trumpet individual marks, Staley was quiet about the records. She was just glad to see her team respond after two sluggish performances, and a rough first half against the Gators.
“I did think about the 11 wins,” Staley admitted. “I didn’t really pay close attention to overall years. We want to progress each and every year. People need something tangible, recruits need something tangible, to look at.”
Despite fielding only eight players, the Gators (17-13, 6-10) played physical, giving the ball to bullish forward Sydney Moss and letting her take on the Gamecocks’ lighter post players. USC couldn’t get its half-court offense in gear, having to rely on fast-break buckets while its pound-the-paint tendency resulted in missed chip shots and turnovers.
Forward Ashley Bruner, honored with Sancheon White and Ieasia Walker as the team’s three seniors before the game, couldn’t get anything to go in the first half, shooting 1-for-7 and committing two fouls. But the Gamecocks stayed in it thanks to Walker, who as good captains do, picked up her team when it was down.
Walker scored seven straight points in one sizzling stretch, shooting 5-for-8 to keep the Gamecocks afloat. The rest of the team, mired in a 5-for-20 slump, considered itself lucky to end the half tied at 25.
Staley challenged the team at the half to step it up. The lack of energy in the past two games was rearing its head again, and the Gamecocks were letting the Gators’ pressure defense frustrate them. Walker was being hounded by Carlie Nettles, but was about the only player on the floor who was handling it well.
“We just knew we had to pick it up defensively,” Walker said. “We figured we’d get some momentum by pushing the ball. That’s how we got those quick points.”
Staley constantly preaches to “flip the switch.” Out of the halftime locker room, the Gamecocks did.
Bruner scored four straight points and Walker had two more to open a six-point lead. It swelled to nine as the Gamecocks were able to get into their cherished transition game. While Florida never gave up, foul trouble and USC’s get-out-and-run game took its toll, as USC broke it open in the final eight minutes.
Bruner finished with 16, 14 in the second half. Walker, even though she only scored two in the second half, had 14 for the game. Aleighsa Welch had 14 and Khadijah Sessions had nine. Bruner found herself in time to right the ship and play well in front of a sizable family contingent, while Walker, a New York native, wasn’t about to let her family drive 13 hours to see her play badly.
“I think we kept it together pretty well,” Walker said with a smile.
USC was locked into the fifth seed for the SEC tournament before the game and was waiting for an opponent at the end of Sunday’s game (many of the league’s other games tipped off at 3 p.m.)
The Gamecocks will play at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday in Duluth, Ga., against the winner of Wednesday’s No. 12-No. 13 play-in game.
The only bad news came out of College Station, Texas. Texas A&M lost to red-hot LSU, which resonated all the way across the country in Columbia. Had the Gamecocks beaten Missouri, they would have leaped over the Aggies for a top-four finish. As it is, if they win on Thursday, they’ll have to rematch with A&M.S.C. State basketball teams try to rebound at N.C. Central
DURHAM, N.C. – Both South Carolina State basketball teams will try to rebound against North Carolina Central Monday night, following losses at North Carolina A&T Saturday. The S.C. State women had their four-game win streak snapped, losing 59-54 to the second-place Lady Aggies, while the Bulldogs had their lowest point output of the season in dropping a 58-35 to the N.C. A&T men.
Tipoff for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference doubleheader is 5:30 p.m. Both games can be heard over S.C. State’s campus station WSSB (90.3 FM), courtesy of the N.C. Central radio network.
The S.C. State men, who fell to 5-22 on the year and 1-13 in the MEAC with Saturday’s setback, are seeking their second conference win of the season. The Bulldogs have lost three in a row since earning a 72-70 triumph over N.C. A&T Feb. 16 at Orangeburg for their lone MEAC victory.
The Eagles, who started the SC State current slide with a 71-52 victory on Feb. 18 at Orangeburg, are 20-8 overall and 13-1 in the conference. N.C. Central avenged its only MEAC loss on Saturday with a 51-47 win over Savannah State.
Coach Murray Garvin’s Bulldogs are led by junior Matt Hezekiah, who is averaging 13.1 points and 7.5 rebounds, both team highs. Senior guard Khalif Toombs is contributing 12.2 points and 3.2 assists each outing. Also in double figures for S.C. State is junior Louie Adams, with 10.1 points. Stanton Kidd is the Eagle leader with 14.1 points and 6.8 rebounds each outing.
The S.C. State women, 17-8 overall and in fourth-place in the MEAC at 9-5, are led by senior Tiara Knotts with a 14.0 scoring average and Ashley Clarke, who is contributing 10.7 points each outing. Clark is also the team’s top rebounder with 6.4 per game.
The N.C, Central Lady Eagles, who defeated Savannah State 33-29 on Saturday for only their second victory of the season – both wins coming over the Lady Tigers – are 2-25 and 2-12 in the league. Senior Chasidy Williams is the team’s top scorer with 9.9 per game. Tisha Dixon is chipping in 7.8 points per game and is also the leading rebounder with an 8.4 average.
While it stung that the Gamecocks were that close to a top-four finish, and thus a bye out of the first two days of the tournament, at least they get to play on Thursday against a team that has to play the night before. That’s an advantage that none of Thursday’s other competitors has.
USC will have to win four games in four days to win the SEC tournament, but is assured of its second straight NCAA tournament berth. The “Bracketology” updates have consistently placed the Gamecocks as a No. 4 seed in their projections.
Doing some damage in the tournament, as USC did last year by reaching the semifinals for the first time in program history, can only strengthen that projection.
“We did play in postseason last year, we have some experience with it,” Staley said. “It’s not new for everybody. The core of our players have gone to the Sweet 16. We’re going to draw on those experiences and play the type of baseball we need to play.
“We’re going to win. We’re not going down there to just win a game here or there. We’re excited about where we are.”