DULUTH, Ga. - Ieasia Walker got the ball in the corner, trained her eyes on the basket and took her time. It was, her coach would say later, the right shot.
But it didn't go in. And so Dawn Staley's second season at South Carolina ended with a 64-63 loss to Mississippi in the first round of the SEC tournament.
The Gamecocks finish with a 14-15 record, leaving them ineligible for the postseason (the women's NIT does not invite teams with losing records).
Staley called it disappointing but cited the "inch-by-inch" improvement over last year's 10-win campaign.
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"It's hard to see right now, sitting here right after a loss in the SEC tournament. But we got better," Staley said. "We're more talented than we were last year, we're gonna be more talented in the years to come and, hopefully, as I told our crowd in Columbia, we're gonna make what we're experiencing right now in Columbia distant memories. At some point."
Thursday's game illustrated the team's improvement.
Last year the Gamecocks were 2-12 in the SEC, the last seed in the tournament and scored 39 points in their first-round loss to Mississippi State.
This year the Gamecocks were 7-9 in the league, the No. 8 seed in the tournament and narrowly lost a first-round game that featured 15 lead changes and 10 ties.
And perhaps their biggest reason for hope for the future, freshman center Kelsey Bone, had 20 points and 10 rebounds, along with a couple of key assists down the stretch.
But she was not able to touch the ball when it mattered most.
After Mississippi took a one-point lead with 16 seconds remaining, Staley called timeout. The plan was to go inside to Bone or Charenee Stephens, who also had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, but the Rebels clogged the lane, leaving Walker open.
"She was wide open," Staley said. "We wanted to get the ball inside to Kelsey, but they were kind of crowding her space and left Ieasia wide open. I'm satisfied with the shot. It was on the mark. She had her feet set. It looked like it was going in, but unfortunately for us it didn't."
Bone's vantage point was the same.
"It was a good shot," Bone said. "She's knocked that shot down a whole bunch of times this year."
That the Gamecocks' final possession ended on a 3-pointer was surprising given that they had attempted only seven in the game previously, making one. That performance was unusual, considering USC entered as the third-best 3-point shooting team in the SEC at 35.4 percent.
"I think Mississippi hit enough of them for both of us," Staley said.
The Rebels went 10-for-25 beyond the arc. They used 3-point shooting to get back in the game after USC grabbed a 10-0 lead, making four during an 18-4 run.
But their biggest shot was a putback.
La'Keisha Sutton gave USC a two-point lead on a driving layup with 35 seconds to go. On the ensuing possession, the Rebels missed an outside shot, but 5-foot-4 Shantell Black got the rebound.
She converted the layup while being fouled by Bone. Black drained the free throw to give the Rebels the lead.
"She made the play when she had to," Mississippi coach Renee Ladner said. "You have six seniors playing for their life right now. I think she understood the urgency."
The Gamecocks have no seniors and start two freshmen. It was a point Staley made in her postgame news conference.
"We've got to become winners. We've got to have a sense of urgency. I don't think that our team had that every time that we took the floor," Staley said. "Whether it's youth or whatever it is, at this point, when you're playing in this league, if you can't get up to play every team in this league, then obviously your competitive juices aren't flowing in the right place."