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With her team up by one point and less than 35 seconds remaining on Sunday, USC senior guard La’Keisha Sutton looked over to the sideline and heard coach Dawn Staley call “Chicago.”
For the first time since her freshman year, the Trenton, N.J., native would run a one-on-one isolation play late in a game. As her teammates stood along the baseline, Sutton deked right and drove to her left before lofting a hook scoop shot over former USC guard Jordan Jones for the score.
No. 24 USC (19-6, 8-4) had to sweat turning over the ball and one last 3-point attempt by Florida for a 62-58 victory at Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks came back after having its four-game winning streak busted on Thursday in their first contest since upsetting Tennessee.
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Staley said the team did not prepare well before the loss at Arkansas but jolted themselves for the game against Florida. The coach said she planned to put the game in the hands of one of her seniors after the Gamecocks squandered a double-digit first-half lead against the Gators.
“For them, they want it more. I think they have a sense of urgency about them,” Staley said. “I think we got lucky. You have got to get lucky in this league to be able to win.”
By defeating Florida, Staley set personal high for season wins at USC and tied her best victory mark in the SEC. The team is considered a likely pick to make its first NCAA tournament appearance in nine seasons.
“I honestly thought we’d be a little further along than we are for a wins-and-loss standpoint,” said Staley, who is in her fourth season in Columbia. “For me as a coach, I had to exert some patience. But when you see growth year in and year out, you have to look at the players growing and they’re learning how to win and that was not always the case.”
South Carolina built a 10-point halftime cushion on Florida by using transition baskets generated from a stifling defense. USC dominated the boards to take an 11-0 edge in second-chance points and 10-0 edge in fastbreak scoring.
But the second half started off sloppy for both teams. USC failed to take advantage of six early Florida turnovers and went through a five-minute scoring drought. Staley thought some of her shooters were hesitant at times.
The Gators (16-9, 7-5) climbed back as the Gamecocks shot 28 percent in the second half. USC had made half its first half shots, including 7-for-10 3-pointers. They went 1-for-3 from long range in the second half.
Florida tied the score with 6:30 left, but USC regained the lead off a Florida miscue when guard Markeshia Grant, who scored a game-high 20 points, sank her fifth 3-pointer of the game from the right baseline. Then Sutton hit two free throws after she was fouled under the basket while on a fast break after another Gator turnover.
Florida battled back to within one point with two minutes to go after getting a layup off an Ieasia Walker turnover. The Gators had a chance to go ahead after Sutton had a shot blocked and Tina Roy missed a jumper.
But Florida missed two shots before Grant grabbed the rebound and sent to ball to Sutton for the decisive score on her isolation play. Staley figured if Sutton didn’t score that she was a good bet at the free-throw line where she shoots 80 percent in SEC play.
That proved unnecessary.
“I saw the big girls in the back, so I knew if I tried to drive, they were going to just try to come up and block it,” said Sutton, who scored five of her nine points in the final 4:38. “But I went anyway because that’s what I’m known for doing — just put my head down and go.”
Staley credited the biggest home crowd in two seasons — 6,517 — for getting behind her tired team in the final minutes.
“I don’t think we win this game if we were any place than Colonial Life Arena,” she said.
The Gamecocks will seek a little more motivation to get through their final four remaining SEC games that include matchups against two ranked teams — Thursday at home against No. 21 Georgia and Feb. 23 at No. 7 Kentucky.
“I’m not going to use the NCAA tournament,” Staley said. “I’m just going to use what our team builds tradition on and that is preparation. And if we focus on each and every game and give ourselves a shot at winning in the end, I’m satisfied with that.”