Dawn Staley didn’t care for the effort her young basketball team gave in the first half against Drexel on Wednesday night. The Dragons held a 14-point cushion and Staley challenged her team at the half.
Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch got the message loud and clear and behind the spirited effort of those two the Gamecocks rallied for a 58-55 overtime victory at Colonial Life Arena.
“That was a pretty good second half,” Staley said. “I thought our players grew up. I thought our players — mentally and physically — were in tune in the second half. We were chipping away at the lead and, fortunately, we came up with some big plays. I thought Tiffany Mitchell hit some big, big shots along with Ashley.”
Bruner drew most of the anger from Staley at the half. The senior was held scoreless and without a rebound as the Dragons built a 36-22 lead. Drexel was having its way offensively — especially in the final 10 minutes of the period. Drexel shot 62.5 percent in the half and closed on a 16-4 run. The Dragons made 6-of-8 from beyond the 3-point line and connected on 10 of their final 11 field goals.
The Gamecocks (8-0) were stone cold, connecting on 29.2 percent and were listless on both ends of the floor. Staley delivered a fiery speech and the Gamecocks responded. Bruner scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the second half and Welch controlled the boards by collecting 10 of her 15 rebounds in the second half and overtime periods. Mitchell scored 12 of her 14 points in the second half.
“I felt like I didn’t come to play in the first half and I really took it personally that I didn’t have any points or rebounds,” Bruner said. “I wasn’t helping my team at all. I was going to do whatever it took to get my team back into the game.”
Staley said she couldn’t repeat what she said to Bruner at the half but she liked the response.
“It can’t be told up in here,” Staley said. “But she wasn’t ready to play. In order for us to be on all cylinders, our starters have to get us off to a good start. I thought she was lethargic for this type of game. She is usually a gamer and one we can count on to be there when we need her. She came out ready to go in the second half.”
The Gamecocks chipped away slowly and it took them nearly the entire half to force the first tie of the game.
Sancheon White nailed a 3-pointer from the wing with 1:01 remaining to force the extra session. That was the first time the game had been tied as the Dragons took control from the opening tip.
After the teams exchanged turnovers, Drexel had a chance to win it at the buzzer. Hollie Mershon, who had a game-high 19 points, received the inbounds pass under the basket and was open after the Gamecocks slipped on the play but her shot was too hard off the glass and it bounced off the front of the rim.
It was all Gamecocks from that point. They held Drexel scoreless over the final 6:36 of regulation and overtime to win their eighth in a row to start the season to match the best start since 2002.
In the overtime, the Dragons (4-2) were 0-for-7 from the field with two turnovers.
Bruner scored with 3:29 remaining to give USC its first lead.
“We had to defend our home court,” Welch said. “They came in and tried to put us away in the first half. We had to come out in the second half with a lot more energy. We had to put the first half behind us, not dwell on it and make it a whole new ball game. We were able to do that.”
One of the changes Staley made in the second half was putting Ieasia Walker on Mershon. Once Walker started guarding her, she didn’t score a field goal over the final 10 minutes of the contest and had one free throw during that time.
“I thought Ieasia did a great job cutting her direct line to the basket with her right hand off,” Staley said. “It made it very difficult for them (after that).”
South Carolina travels to Seton Hall on Sunday and then has a week off before returning home for a five-game home stand that begins with Furman on Dec. 9.