South Carolina women's basketball likely ended any talk of an at-large NCAA tournament berth with a dismal final eight minutes Sunday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena.
The Gamecocks wasted an 18-point second half lead and fell to SEC bottom-feeder Arkansas 72-68.
If you listen to USC coach Dawn Staley, any talk of an NCAA tournament bid is almost gone. USC’s best chance to dance come March is by winning the SEC tournament next month in Duluth, Ga.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re not in,” Staley said. “That’s what it is (winning the SEC tournament). We don’t have a shot at it.”
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The disappointment came on the heels of a two-point setback to Mississippi State on Thursday night. A win in those two games and USC (13-12, 6-7) would be alone in third place in the SEC. Instead, the Gamecocks are in ninth place.
To make matters worse, the Gamecocks have a week off before closing the regular season against Kentucky, Georgia and Vanderbilt. Two of those three are ranked, with the Commodores sitting just outside the Top 25.
“Yes it does (hurt more than Thursday’s loss),” USC guard Valerie Nainima said. “We were up really big, and then they kept playing. And coach told us in the locker room that we laid dead for them.”
South Carolina led 61-43 until the Razorbacks closed on a 29-7 run over the final 8:11. Arkansas (10-14, 3-9) changed defenses and started trapping USC out of a half-court zone. It disrupted the Gamecocks enough that USC went 3-for-13 from the field with five turnovers over the final eight minutes.
The Razorbacks took their first lead at 65-63 on two free throws by Quistelle Williams with 3:06 remaining, part of a 22-2 spurt. Kelsey Bone, who had her eighth double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, tied it with a jumper.
After an Arkansas turnover, La’Keisha Sutton missed, but Valerie Nainima got the rebound and found Samone Kennedy wide open in the corner. She drained the 3 and USC was back on top 68-65.
But the Gamecocks failed to score in the final 1:13.
Sarah Watkins cut it to 68-67 with two free throws before Nainima missed the front end of a one-and-one with 16 seconds remaining.
Watkins then converted a three-point play with six seconds to go for the winning points. The Gamecocks had a final chance to force overtime, but Lyndsay Harris stripped the ball from Nainima with 2.3 seconds left. Charity Ford sealed the comeback with two free throws.
“I don’t think they did anything that we haven’t gone over in practice,” Kennedy said. “We just didn’t handle it as well as we could have. They applied a lot more pressure in the second half, and we just didn’t handle it.”
USC appeared to be on its way to an easy victory. The Gamecocks jumped to a 16-5 lead and held Arkansas to one field goal in the opening 10:40. They led 35-21 at the half. “We had control of the game, and we played not to lose,” Staley said. “Arkansas was continuing, playing and fighting and found themselves on the winning end of the stick. It’s quite clear-cut. They wanted it more than we did, and they played like it.”
The Gamecocks wore pink uniforms as part of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s breast cancer awareness campaign. The uniforms are available for auction at GamecocksOnline.com, with the money going to support the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund and the Palmetto Health Hospital Breast Center.