South Carolina women’s basketball team added to its season of firsts Friday night.
The No. 25 Gamecocks are going to the SEC tournament semifinals for the first time ever after punishing No. 16 Georgia inside to win 59-55.
USC (23-8) plays No. 13 Tennessee at 6 p.m. Saturday for a tournament final berth. The Gamecocks beat the Volunteers a month ago for the first time in 32 years and the first-time ever in Knoxville 64-60.
LSU meets SEC regular-season champion Kentucky in the other semifinal game.
“I think it's something we've been working for all year long,” USC head coach Dawn Staley said. “They're definitely leaving a legacy that hopefully will continue for a long time.”
Staley said her team has confidence in getting another shot at Tennessee, the tournament's No. 2 seed.
“I think it's a neutral site,” she said. “The fact we did beat them on their floor does help with our confidence level. At this time of the season, if we do stick to our game plan and execute, we can give ourselves a shot at winning it.”
USC, the sixth seed, won Friday even when part of their game fizzled.
With its perimeter shooting struggling against third-seed Georgia, the Gamecocks took the ball into the paint versus a taller Bulldog squad and grabbed a 30-26 halftime lead.
The team went 3-of-20 from three-point range and shot 37 percent from the field, but forwards Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch found spots to get rebounds and buckets.
“I think our players, their legs got a little bit weary. They just settled for taking outside shots, the three-point shots a little bit too much,” Staley said. “At the same time when we were rebounding the way we were, the way our post players were making plays in the paint, it just happened like that in this particular game.”
Late in the game, USC would frustrate Georgia by keeping possessions alive off missed shots that prevent the Bulldogs from generating offense. Georgia’s 55 points were its lowest output in more than a month.
“I think we tried to drain them out as much as possible,” Welch said. “We played the game yesterday. Anybody would come in thinking our legs were gone. It's disheartening when you play defense for a whole possession, then you give up a defensive rebound. We wanted to drain out the clock as much as possible because we knew we couldn't trade buckets with them.”
For the second-straight game in the tournament, the Gamecocks got an edge from the line. The nation’s worst free-throw shooting team at 58 percent connected on a least 70 percent for a second consecutive night.
USC went 14-for-20 from the line Friday and have gone 32-for-44 (73 percent) in the tournament.
“What I'm most proud of is our ability to knock down free throws,” Staley said. “That's the difference. We lose a basketball game like this if we don't shoot 70 percent from the free-throw line.”
USC seemingly took command of the game with a seven-point lead over Georgia (22-8) with nine minutes remaining. The Gamecocks were getting stops while Tina Roy and Ieasia Walker scored and Charenee Stephens converted a three-point play.
The Gamecocks lost the lead within three minutes as the Bulldogs defense stifled USC and Georgia’s scoring clicked.
Then South Carolina kept the ball away from Georgia. Stephens and Welch made layups while La’Keisha Sutton sank four straight free-throws for a 57-51 lead with two minutes left.
Georgia cut the lead to 57-55 in the final minute after a pair of USC three-point misses but the Bulldogs threw away the ball looking to inside with 14 seconds left.
Walker was fouled with 13 seconds left and hit two free throws for a 59-55 lead. Georgia could not score after that and USC avenged a 61-59 loss to the Bulldogs two weeks ago and a 66-34 rout by Georgia in last year’s SEC tournament quarterfinals.
Scoring was spread through the team. Bruner led USC with 12 points and three others added nine points each – Roy, Walker and Welch. Walker led the team with five rebounds, but six grabbed four boards each.
The win builds the Gamecocks’ resume for what’s expected to be their first NCAA tournament berth in nine years. The team is considered a lock with 23 wins and a top-35 RPI ranking.
Souith Carolina has reached the tournament quarterfinals just five times since joining the league in 1991-92. USC is 6-20 in the tournament. Staley evened her tournament record to 3-3.
South Carolina was the only lower seed to win its quarterfinal game on Friday -- not a surprise considering tournament history. Of the 84 teams that have reached the semifinals since the league last expanded in 1991-92, just 20 were seeded fifth through 12th.
Five teams seeded 5th to 12th have reached the finals in the past 21 season and two have won the tournament.
SOUTH CAROLINA (23-8)
Stephens 3-5 1-2 7, Newton 0-0 0-0 0, Walker 2-9 4-4 9, Grant 2-7 0-0 5, Sutton 2-12 4-4 8, Wilson 0-0 0-0 0, White 0-1 0-0 0, Bruner 4-6 4-9 12, Roy 4-12 0-0 9, Welch 4-5 1-1 9. Totals 21-57 14-20 59.
Armstrong 1-10 2-2 4, Hassell 7-9 2-2 16, Miller 3-10 1-2 8, James 3-7 4-7 10, Mitchell 5-12 0-0 10, Donald 0-0 0-0 0, Willis 1-2 0-0 2, Ford 2-3 0-0 5. Totals 22-53 9-13 55.
Halftime: South Carolina 30-26. 3-Point Goals: South Carolina 3-20 (Walker 1-2, Grant 1-4, Roy 1-8, White 0-1, Sutton 0-5), Georgia 2-11 (Ford 1-1, Miller 1-6, Mitchell 0-1, James 0-1, Armstrong 0-2). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: South Carolina 33 (Walker 5), Georgia 38 (James 10). Assists: South Carolina 7 (Sutton 3), Georgia 5 (Mitchell 2). Total Fouls: South Carolina 12, Georgia 19. Attendance: 5,743.