It didn’t work for one of the only times all season.
Until it had to.
Fourth-ranked South Carolina, its offense unnerved and unsteady due to the steam bath of Florida defensive pressure, got it to click when Sunday’s game was getting to the make-or-break point. The Gamecocks (25-2, 13-1 SEC) hit on four straight possessions where the offense flowed as fluidly as it has throughout 24 wins, and pulled away for a 69-55 victory.
The win matched USC’s win total of each of the past two seasons, added to a school record for single-season SEC wins, kept the Gamecocks undefeated at Colonial Life Arena this year and earned a piece of the SEC regular-season championship, after Kentucky beat Texas A&M on Sunday. Coach Dawn Staley knew all that, but she was relieved to get out of Sunday with a win.
Because for the first 35 minutes of the game, it was in doubt.
“I thought our kids were playing too fast and trying to take advantage of all the openings in one play,” Staley said. “It cost us to cough the ball up a lot. They made us play a lot quicker than we wanted to play.”
The Gators (17-10, 7-7), despite dressing nine players and knowing the ninth would play in a case of emergency, were on the Gamecocks from the tip. They scored the first seven points and were hounding point guard Khadijah Sessions up the floor, then forcing the Gamecocks to throw cross-court passes to try to get their offense working. The inside game, due to tipped passes or missed layups, was stagnant.
The Gamecocks had 13 turnovers in the first half but led 32-22. The reason why: Florida couldn’t buy a basket, shooting 25 percent in the period despite taking eight more shots than the Gamecocks. Staley didn’t allow her team to enjoy the advantage, telling it that if it didn’t tighten up the offense, all it had worked for was going to be teetering.
When the situation was dire (Florida trailed by six with 5:17 to play), the Gamecocks put it to work.
Tiffany Mitchell, who led USC with 20 points, was left alone in the corner for a 3-pointer, which she bottomed. Aleighsa Welch wormed her way into the paint for a layup. Sessions found Alaina Coates for a layin, and Welch rebounded her own missed free throw for two more points.
Florida played defense until the buzzer, but the Gamecocks had overcome the rough stretch and remembered what got them to this point. The opponent forced USC to play its way, which was a strange feeling, and the Gamecocks had to make the adjustment.
Championship teams find ways to overcome. USC did, and got the better news about 30 minutes later of the Aggies’ setback.
“It was really unforced turnovers that we made,” Mitchell said. “The ball, we didn’t make the right decision at the right time. We talked in the huddle, we knew we had to settle in and force the ball inside, like we tried to do most of the game.”
“For us, we know where our bread and butter is – points in the paint,” Staley said. “This team has been through a lot, so I don’t think they were fazed by us being up by just seven points.”
Williams 1-7 0-0 2, Needles 2-3 0-0 5, Bonds 9-14 2-5 20, Peoples 2-9 2-2 8, Lewis 4-11 7-8 15, Miller 0-5 2-2 2, Bannister 1-6 0-0 3, Svete 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 19-59 13-17 55.
SOUTH CAROLINA (25-2)
Sessions 1-7 1-3 3, Welch 4-7 4-6 12, Mitchell 7-15 5-7 20, Dozier 1-8 0-0 3, Ibiam 3-6 2-4 8, Farmer 0-0 0-0 0, Gaines 2-3 0-0 4, Montout 0-0 0-0 0, Davis 1-1 0-0 3, Morrison 0-0 0-0 0, Roy 0-1 0-0 0, Coates 5-5 6-8 16. Totals 24-53 18-28 69.
Halftime_South Carolina 32-22. 3-Point Goals_Florida 4-11 (Peoples 2-4, Bannister 1-2, Needles 1-2, Bonds 0-1, Svete 0-2), South Carolina 3-15 (Davis 1-1, Mitchell 1-5, Dozier 1-6, Roy 0-1, Sessions 0-2). Fouled Out_Bonds, Lewis, Williams. Rebounds_Florida 29 (Lewis 9), South Carolina 44 (Coates 12). Assists_Florida 9 (Peoples 4), South Carolina 14 (Dozier 3). Total Fouls_Florida 26, South Carolina 15. A_10,547.