Experience gets job done as Staley’s Gamecocks stay atop SEC

dcloninger@thestate.comFebruary 9, 2014 

USC’s Tiffany Mitchell works her way inside against Arkansas defender McKenzie Adams toward the end of the first half Sunday at Colonial Life Arena.

VAN HOPE — Special To The State

The new kids were OK.

The old guard was better.

Sophomore Tiffany Mitchell and junior Aleighsa Welch spurred No. 6 South Carolina to a 67-49 win over Arkansas on Sunday, stealing the thunder from a matchup of the top two contenders for the SEC’s Freshman of the Year prize. While the Gamecocks’ Alaina Coates and the Razorbacks’ Jessica Jackson each played decently, they didn’t impact the game as much as USC’s veterans.

USC (22-2, 10-1 SEC) needed somebody to take over against the physical Razorbacks (16-8, 3-8), as the Gamecocks’ preferred inside attack was being short-circuited. The ball was either getting tipped away on entry, tipped away on the shot or rebounded by Arkansas, which isn’t the best way to remain in first place in the league.

The Gamecocks needed to score. Mitchell and Welch, the team’s go-to players when chips appear to be falling, needed no further request.

Mitchell scored the team’s first five points and eight of its first 15 on her way to 15 for the game, while Welch was her usual dirty-work self. After shouldering the Gamecocks onto her back for a win at Mississippi State earlier in the week, the junior did more of the same against Arkansas — clear the lane, drive against the Hogs’ post presence, whatever needed to be done.

Welch ended with 16 points, seven rebounds, two steals, a career-high five blocks and more than a few bruises, but the Gamecocks accomplished their goal. They remain in first place in the SEC by one and a half games over idle Tennessee and Texas A&M, which beat LSU on Sunday.

“They were paying a lot of attention to our post players, so I just kind of found my way,” Mitchell said. “Just kind of took the open shot.”

“Tiffany and Aleighsa, they have the green light to pretty much take whatever shots they want,” coach Dawn Staley said. “They don’t derail from the offense too much.”

With the offense over a rough spot, USC was able to locate Ibiam and Coates again, and the two combined for 20 points. The Gamecocks overcame a couple of Arkansas runs and foul trouble to leave another opposing coach shaking his head.

“I’m going to be pulling for (Staley) to make it all the way to the Final Four,” Arkansas coach Tom Collen said.

The anticipated matchup between Coates and Jackson, considered the top two contenders for SEC Freshman of the Year, was a distinct undercard. Coates had 10 points and eight rebounds but also seven turnovers. Jackson had eight points, six boards, a block, two steals and one turnover.

Still, USC locked down on Jackson. And while Coates didn’t play her best, she combined with the other Gamecocks to keep USC headed upward. Next is the five-game stretch that the Gamecocks knew would determine their season — but they get a week to think about the start of it.

“I think we can’t get too caught up in looking at all five in one,” Welch said. “When you get too far ahead of yourself, I think that’s when you slip up. We’re playing really good basketball right now. If we can continue to do what we have to do, I think we’ll be fine. “

Even as USC continues to draw respect from the rest of the league.

“I feel like our team has always been a team that’s in the moment. So we’re going to talk about LSU,” Staley said. “That’s all we’re going to talk about for the next week. If we continue to do what we’ve done all season long, that stuff will take care of itself. We’re going to concentrate on getting another win on the road, which is LSU. Whatever’s after that is after that.

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