South Carolina was struggling against a tall, rangy Auburn squad on Sunday at Colonial Life Arena. The Tigers were dominating the rebounding margin and had the No. 15 Gamecocks on the ropes.
But Khadijah Sessions, the smallest player on the USC roster, came to the rescue. The Myrtle Beach native scored a career-high 19 points, with 14 coming in the second half.
That is what has become expected from the freshman when she comes in off the bench.
“Each game, (Sessions) is gaining confidence,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “She’s been very patient in the long process. She’s kind of waited and learned as she went. She’s playing well at a good time for us. She gives us another scorer. She’s able to create shots for herself and other people. When we called her number at Florida, she’s been playing well ever since.”
Sessions scored a variety of ways, including making 8-of-9 from the free throw line. She finished with three assists and three rebounds in 25 minutes. It’s the second-most minutes she’s played, but her time has increased in the past four games.
After playing a combined 7 minutes against Georgia and LSU, Sessions has played 28, 26, 14 and 25 minutes the past four games. She is averaging 11.1 points per game over that span
“Coach Staley always says when your number is called, be ready,” Sessions said. “I’ve been ready for a couple of games now. This is a crucial point of the season, and we’re going to need all nine players. I’m just trying to step up for my teammates.”
The victory was important for the Gamecocks (19-3, 7-2 SEC). It allowed USC to stay with the top of the conference after a couple of teams ahead of them lost Sunday.
Tennessee lost to Missouri, and Kentucky was knocked off by Georgia to place five teams within a game of first place with seven games remaining. The Volunteers lead with an 8-1 record, and Texas A&M is a half game back at 7-1 with LSU on tap tonight.
The Wildcats, Bulldogs and Gamecocks are all tied at 7-2.
“We can’t settle for anything,” Sessions said. “We know what we’re capable of doing. We’re capable of winning the SEC. The title is up for grabs, and we’re trying to go grab it.”
Staley was diplomatic in her response to the standings.
“We try to control what we can control, and that’s winning basketball games, taking care of home (games),” Staley said. “It helps in the overall scheme of things to have that parity in the league. We still control our own destiny.”
Auburn made its final push with less than four minutes remaining. Tra’cee Tanner scored on a shot in the lane to make it a 49-47 with 2:40 to go.
But Sessions quickly had an answer when her driving lapup and free throw extended to the lead 10 seconds later. The Tigers got within three on a runner by Tyrese Tanner, but Sessions and Aleighsa Welch salted it away from the line. The two combined to make 8-of-9 free throws over the final 2:33.
Tiffany Mitchell and Aleighsa Welch added 10 points apiece for the Gamecocks. Auburn was lead by the Tanner sisters, Tyrese and Tra-cee, who each scored 10.
The Gamecocks held two of the Tigers’ top three scorers, Hasina Muhammad and Blanche Alverson, to a combined nine points. They came in averaging 27 points per game between them.
Staley was disappointed in being outrebounded, but USC did hold Auburn (13-9, 2-7) to less than 40 percent shooting (22-for-56) and forced 16 turnovers with nine steals.
“We’ve gotten outrebounded, and our defense hasn’t been as strong as it’s been,” Staley said. “We’ll go back to the drawing board and figure out how we go back to getting stops when we need stops and coming up with some crucial rebounds when we need them. We have a lot of ammunition to throw at our players to get them to go back to the defense we were playing 10 games ago.”
Alverson 1-4 0-1 2, Ty. Tanner 4-11 2-2 10, Davis 1-2 0-0 2, Ouardad 3-7 0-0 7, Muhammad 2-13 3-4 7, West 0-1 0-0 0, Clay 3-6 0-2 7, King 1-1 0-0 2, Capers 2-4 0-0 4, Tr. Tanner 5-7 0-0 10. Totals 22-56 5-9 51.
SOUTH CAROLINA (19-3)
Bruner 3-5 0-2 6, Welch 2-4 6-8 10, Walker 2-7 2-4 8, White 1-3 0-0 3, Mitchell 3-9 3-5 10, Sessions 5-9 8-9 19, Montout 1-2 0-0 3, Dozier 0-2 0-0 0, Ibiam 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-41 19-28 59.
Halftime: South Carolina 28-22. 3-Point Goals: Auburn 2-8 (Clay 1-1, Ouardad 1-3, Ty. Tanner 0-1, Alverson 0-3), South Carolina 6-17 (Walker 2-7, White 1-2, Mitchell 1-2, Montout 1-2, Sessions 1-3, Dozier 0-1). Fouled Out: Ty. Tanner. Rebounds: Auburn 35 (Capers 7), South Carolina 28 (Mitchell, Walker 4). Assists: Auburn 13 (Ouardad 5), South Carolina 11 (Walker 5). Total Fouls: Auburn 23, South Carolina 14. Attendance: 3,797.