USC coach Dawn Staley said it before she left: Missouri’s defense would resemble Syracuse’s.
Just like Syracuse did in last year’s Sweet 16, that defense beat South Carolina.
The Tigers stunned the No. 6 Gamecocks 62-60 on Sunday, seriously denting their hopes for a fourth consecutive SEC regular-season championship. USC is now a game behind Mississippi State, which defeated Texas A&M 72-67 on Sunday; with two to play.
The Gamecocks (22-4, 12-2 SEC) could still win it, but in the meantime, they were left wondering why they accepted the way to play instead of forcing their will on the opponent. It was the same feeling they had last year after losing to the Orange.
Sophie Cunningham’s running layup with less than a second to go completed a disastrous final 30 seconds for USC. Kaela Davis’s seventh turnover, a charge into a planted defender, gave the ball to the Tigers, and Cunningham, as she did throughout the second half, shredded USC’s interior defense.
Cunningham finished with 26 points. Missouri outshot and outrebounded the Gamecocks, who again got a monster game from A’ja Wilson and not much from anyone else.
The Tigers dropped into a zone to limit Wilson and Alaina Coates, which is what every opponent does to USC. With Coates in foul trouble – she fouled out with two points and three rebounds – USC got the ball to Wilson for a team-high 23 points.
The rest, they thought, would come from outside. But nobody could hit.
USC shot 3-pointer after 3-pointer, just as it did against Syracuse, and missed shot after shot. The Gamecocks were 3 of 18 from long range, yet refused to challenge the Tigers’ zone.
Ahead at halftime due to Missouri’s chronic turnovers, USC’s defense buckled and collapsed, curiously after an advantageous break. Tiger starter Lindsey Cunningham hit her head and couldn’t play through it, yet the Gamecocks couldn’t make the absence work.
Cunningham’s sister, sophomore Sophie, shook off a six-point first half to carve up the Gamecocks’ interior in the third quarter. USC couldn’t keep up, Coates tentative against the defense and the guards settling for jumpers.
USC began driving the ball and getting to the free-throw line, but couldn’t make those breaks count. Allisha Gray missed three consecutive free throws in a two-point game with 2:32 to go, but a Wilson layup tied the game at 60, with USC holding the ball with 39 seconds to play.
The Gamecocks needed to milk the clock and take a smart interior shot, especially after Davis had tried to find Wilson inside on a previous possession and turned it over. Instead, Davis, with 20 seconds on the shot clock, blindly drove into the lane and was whistled for charging.
That set up Cunningham’s final possession. Afraid of fouling, nobody got in front of Cunningham as she drove to the rim.
South Carolina tips off at Texas A&M at 9 p.m. on Thursday.
South Carolina (22-4)—Wilson 9-11 5-8 23, Coates 1-1 0-0 2, Davis 2-11 2-2 6, Gray 5-13 2-5 13, Harris 1-4 0-0 2, Herbert Harrigan 2-2 0-1 5, Cliney 1-3 0-0 3, Cuevas-Moore 0-6 6-6 6, Davis 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 21-51 15-22 60.
Missouri (19-9)—Porter 3-7 3-5 10, Cunningham 0-3 0-0 0, Cunningham 10-16 5-6 26, Doty 3-4 0-0 7, Michaelis 5-12 0-0 11, Schuchts 1-2 0-0 3, Chavis 0-0 0-0 0, Smith 2-5 0-0 5, Totals 24-49 8-11 62.
3-Point Goals—South Carolina 3-18 (Davis 0-6, Gray 1-6, Harris 0-1, Herbert Harrigan 1-1, Cliney 1-1, Cuevas-Moore 0-3), Missouri 6-18 (Porter 1-3, Cunningham 0-2, Cunningham 1-3, Doty 1-1, Michaelis 1-6, Schuchts 1-1, Smith 1-2). Assists—South Carolina 9 (Gray 3), Missouri 10 (Cunningham 5). Fouled Out—South Carolina Coates, Rebounds—South Carolina 26 (Wilson 9), Missouri 34 (Porter 10). Total Fouls—South Carolina 19, Missouri 23. A—5,789.