20 wins again: Staley’s Gamecocks own first place in SEC

Program records third straight 20-win season

dcloninger@thestate.comFebruary 2, 2014 

South Carolina’s Khadijah Sessions, left, and Tiffany Mitchell keep the ball from Missouri’s Bri Kulas during Sunday’s game.

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com

With a sizable crowd mostly decked out in matching neon T-shirts, the No. 1 national recruit sitting behind the bench and a chance at undisputed first place in the league, there was plenty of pressure on seventh-ranked South Carolina on Sunday.

The Gamecocks made sure the “There’s no place like home” etching on those neon T-shirts stayed correct.

USC weathered a Missouri surge out of the locker room and thrashed the Tigers 78-62, staying unbeaten at Colonial Life Arena and finding out the other good news after the game. Vanderbilt aced two free throws with 2.2 seconds to go and beat Texas A&M, meaning the Gamecocks (20-2, 8-1 SEC) are in sole possession of first place in the SEC.

Coach Dawn Staley also recorded her third consecutive 20-win season and the fifth in 23 SEC seasons for USC, with seven regular-season games left to play. While there’s always something to work on – USC was so clinically efficient in a 48-point first half that the first seven minutes of the second seemed like there was a different team on the floor, and late-game free-throw situations continue to be an adventure – Staley feels good about what her team is displaying.

“The baskets that they did get, they worked for,” Staley said. “We just wanted to stay in all plays. In the second half, when they got going, just having to play exhausted basketball in the first half really helped us hold on to get this win.”

Several fouls at the beginning of the second half nearly let Missouri (14-8, 3-6) back in the game, but when a 25-point lead was sliced to 13, USC woke up. Tiffany Mitchell canned a 3-pointer as part of her team-high 20 points and the Gamecocks re-established themselves.

A first half during which USC dared Missouri to penetrate the paint and turned posts Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates loose was more than enough to pave the rough spots in the second. The final 13 minutes featured USC being patient on offense, using half or more of the shot clock every time, and not being as aggressive on defense to avoid the happy whistles.

Mizzou star Bri Kulas got loose for 21 points but the Tigers couldn’t get anyone else to consistently score. Mizzou got its share of 3-pointers (the SEC’s leader with 8.5 per game, the Tigers hit nine), but USC’s dominance of the paint made the success obsolete.

“Coach told us it would open up for us,” said Asia Dozier, who connected on three 3-pointers among her 11 points. “Coach told us we were going to have ‘practice shots’ – shots like we’re the only ones in the gym.”

USC steamrolled the Tigers to end a two-game homestand and prepared to head back on the road. Now, it’s a case of not only playing well but defending the spot it has earned – first place would earn the top seed for the SEC tournament, and the first regular-season SEC title in school history.

The Gamecocks were denied a top-four finish last year because of a loss at Mizzou. They are aiming for a lot more than a top-four this year, and took another step on Sunday.

“If we’re this close, we might as well try to go ahead and push through and become one of those teams that win 25, 30 games every single year,” Staley said. “Hopefully, this team continues to do what got us here and, hopefully, we’ll see more and more glory days like now.”

A 14-0 run at the end of the first half built the massive lead and six players finished in double figures. All wasn’t aces – USC was 25-of-46 from the free-throw line, including 11-of-27 in the second half – but the first-half surge was the wave that carried the Gamecocks to the win.

Next up – back on the road at Mississippi State, which knocked off Georgia on Sunday. Now it’s about playing the part of the hunted, instead of one of the hunters.

“I don’t think it’s a big focus of ours, but we know we’ve got a target on our back,” Dozier said. “I think it will make us play even harder.”

“I don’t think it’s going to be an easy thing, but this is the life,” Staley said. “If we win, this is the life we chose because we kept winning. I’d much rather be in first place than last place, or middle of the pack. Our team does a tremendous job of staying in the moment.”

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