Video highlights can be found at the end of this story.
Ieasia Walker was South Carolina’s top scorer last season, but she has traded points for assists this season as La’Keisha Sutton and Markeshia Walker have taken control of the offense.
That has led to games during which the 5-foot-8 junior from New York will have some rusty shooting nights, like on Thursday versus No. 18 Georgia, when she missed her first 10 attempts. But Walker was crucial in No. 25 USC’s comeback that fell short at the buzzer in a 61-59 loss.
Walker’s first basket came when the Bulldogs took their biggest lead — 8 points — with 9 minutes remaining. On the next possession, Walker slid hard into the media table trying to save a ball she tipped away from Jasmine Jones.
Then, as Georgia pushed the lead to 7 points with 5 minutes left, Walker scored 5 straight to cut the Bulldogs’ edge to 52-50. She hit a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired and followed a Georgia turnover with a short jumper on an isolation play much like the one Sutton scored the game-winning basket against Florida on Sunday.
“I just had to keep shooting and try not to lose my cool,” said Walker, who finished with 9 points on 3-for-15 shooting.
USC would reel Georgia back from another 5-point lead as the game would be decided at the line. The game’s final 9 points came from the free-throw line.
Walker tied the game at 59 on two free throws after she was fouled by Anne Marie Armstrong with 12 seconds remaining. But Armstrong then was fouled by Sancheon White to the loud groans of USC fans.
“We thought it was clean, but the refs made a call,” Walker said.
USC coach Dawn Staley was disappointed at the foul because USC had one to give at the point. Georgia took the lead on Armstrong’s free throws, leaving South Carolina 4 seconds to find a way to win or tie the game.
Walker sprinted cleanly up court and found herself just right of the key at the 3-point arc with an open look, but her shot smacked the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded.
“I had enough time to get a good shot off,” she said. “It was short. I should have put more air under it.”
Walker added 6 rebounds and had a team-high 5 assists — which bolstered her lead among the Gamecocks in that category. Staley said Walker is the team’s engine but since her scoring has taken a back seat to Grant and Sutton, she is not always as active as her coach would like to see.
“It was good to see her getting aggressive,” Staley said.
USC got off to a 9-0 start. But the Bulldogs’ zone ended the Gamecocks’ fluid play, Staley said. They shut down Grant, the Gamecock’s leading scorer, who did not hit a field goal in the final 29 minutes. Sutton, who scored 16 points in the first half, scored four more to finish the game.
After trying half of its first-half shots from behind the 3point line, South Carolina worked the ball inside in the second half but it was Georgia’s tall, athletic forwards — Armstrong and Jasmine Hassell — getting their way around the basket. They combined for 28 points as the Bulldogs scored 38 points in the paint.
“Their bigs didn’t get a lot of touches offensively tonight, but when they did, they capitalized on them,” Walker said.
Even with the loss, USC (19-7, 8-5) is expected to make its first NCAA tournament in nine years. Buoyed by a top-35 RPI, the Gamecocks have three regular-season games remaining, including a trip to Alabama on Sunday. The Tide, the league’s cellar-dweller, beat No. 7 Kentucky on Thursday.
“We’re just going to keep scratching and clawing and trying to get as many wins as possible,” Staley said. “We just want to get in. And I think once we get in, we don’t see a Georgia or a Kentucky. We see a different team, a team that won’t know us as much.”
Armstrong 3-4 4-4 10, Hassell 8-13 2-2 18, Miller 4-8 1-2 11, James 3-11 1-1 7, Mitchell 7-14 1-5 15, Willis 0-0 0-0 0, Ford 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-50 9-14 61.
SOUTH CAROLINA (19-7)
Stephens 3-5 1-2 7, Welch 2-6 1-4 5, Walker 3-15 2-2 9, Grant 3-10 2-3 11, Sutton 7-15 3-3 20, White 0-0 0-0 0, Bruner 2-3 0-0 4, Newton 0-0 0-0 0, Roy 1-5 0-0 3, Ibiam 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-59 9-14 59.
Halftime: South Carolina 31-29. 3-Point Goals: Georgia 2-7 (Miller 2-4, James 0-1, Mitchell 0-2), South Carolina 8-23 (Sutton 3-5, Grant 3-10, Roy 1-4, Walker 1-4). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Georgia 32 (James 8), South Carolina 34 (Stephens 11). Assists: Georgia 11 (Miller 6), South Carolina 14 (Walker 5). Total Fouls: Georgia 15, South Carolina 10. Attendance: 2,835.
From the SEC Digital Network