Coming off a 22-point loss at No. 4 Tennessee on Thursday, South Carolina needed to hold serve at home against Auburn on Sunday to keep its hopes of an NCAA tournament bid alive.
La’Keisha Sutton tied her career-high with 24 points, and the Gamecocks rolled to a 65-49 victory against the Tigers in front of 4,114 fans at Colonial Life Arena.
“Our whole team loves to dance, so it would be nice to dance in March,” Sutton said of the team’s NCAA tournament hopes.
Coach Dawn Staley feels South Carolina (16-11, 8-6 SEC) deserves to be in the mix after winning seven of their past 10 games. Two of those losses came to the Volunteers, and the other was a seven-point setback at Auburn. USC came into the game with a RPI of 54 and a strength of schedule of 16.
The Gamecocks — who last made Big Dance in 2002-03, the second of back-to-back appearances under Susan Walvius — are in fifth place in the SEC. They finish the regular season with games at LSU on Thursday and Vanderbilt at home on Sunday. The Gamecocks are a game ahead of both LSU and Auburn in the standings and a game behind Kentucky and the Commodores.
“From a coaching standpoint, we think about it all the time,” Staley said. “We can’t pass that down to our players. We want our players to play as normal as possible and as fresh as possible. And the only way to do that is to keep them with the mindset of keeping it one game at a time. We do talk about the SEC standings and that’s as far as we go. We control our own destiny there. ”
Sunday’s game started slowly for the Gamecocks.
USC missed its first eight shots from the floor and fell behind 8-0 before a layup from Sutton at the 15:17 mark. The Gamecocks slowly worked back into the game and took the lead for good on 3-pointer from Valerie Nainima to make it 25-22 with 2:35 remaining in the half.
The Gamecocks trailed 18-15 but closed the half on a 12-4 run before opening the second half with a 17-3 spurt to build a 44-25 lead, the biggest of the game.
“It was a total team effort,” Sutton said. “We realized we were down early and got off to a slow start, but in our huddles and timeouts, everybody was encouraging and bringing energy. So we feed off of that.”
Nainima scored 15 points for the second straight game and seems to be healed after missing the beginning of the season with a torn ACL in her right knee. After struggling with her shot, Nainima said it feels good to be a steady contributor again.
“I feel some things that I used to feel before,” Nainima said. “The feel of the ball and everything is coming back slowly, but I’m very happy it is at this time of year.”
Ashley Bruner added 1 4 points and a team-best six rebounds to give the Gamecocks three players in double figures.
“We’re playing confident, and we’re more cohesive on and off the court,” Sutton said. “We try not to look too far ahead. We try to take it one game at a time, and it starts in practice so it was a good win. We control our own destiny from this point on. We know we need everything to possibly get in the tournament.”
Percentages: FG .412, FT .600. 3-Point Goals: 1-7, .143 (Glymph 1-2, Alverson 0-3, Smalley 0-2). Team Rebounds: 5. Blocked Shots: 3 (Smalley, Williams, Alverson). Turnovers: 19 (Williams 4, Hilliard 4, Smalley 3, Alverson 2, Toles 2, Jennings 2, Tanner, TEAM). Steals: 9 (Jennings 3, Smalley 2, Hilliard, Glymph, Toles, Alverson). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .436, FT .667. 3-Point Goals: 7-16, .438 (Nainima 3-4, Newton 2-5, Grant 1-4, Sutton 1-2, Walker 0-1). Team Rebounds: 9. Blocked Shots: 1 (Sutton). Turnovers: 16 (Sutton 6, Grant 3, Bruner 3, May 2, Walker, Stephens). Steals: 7 (Walker 3, Newton 2, Stephens, May). Technical Fouls: None. Att.–4,114. Officials–Dee Kantner, Lawson Newton, Billy Smith.