With the season winding down, the South Carolina women’s basketball team needs to take care of business against teams they are supposed to and defend their home court.
They were able to do both Sunday afternoon
A quick start put the Gamecocks in control before a lackadaisical second half capped a 58-43 victory against Mississippi State at Colonial Life Arena.
The win was good enough for USC to match last year’s SEC win total with 10 victories. The Gamecocks have two chances to set a school record for SEC wins — on the road against Missouri on Thursday night before the regular season finale next Sunday at home against Florida.
In all likelihood, South Carolina (22-5, 10-4) will be the No. 5 seed for the SEC tournament. They can’t fall below that spot, and they trail the top four teams, all of whom own the tiebreaker against USC.
“We know we don’t control our own destiny,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “We do control whether we win or lose basketball games. We need to concentrate on practicing the way we practice and get ourselves ready for postseason play.”
If the Gamecocks play like they did in the first half, they might have a long postseason stay.
The Gamecocks were active on the defensive end from the start and recorded six steals and forced two turnovers before the Bulldogs took a shot. That led to an opening 12-0 run, and that lead never dropped below nine for the remainder of the game.
“I thought we were disruptive and forced them to play a little bit quicker than they wanted to play,” Staley said of the strong start. “The rust was off the way we started the game.”
Aleighsa Welch finished with game highs of 20 points — a career high — and 11 rebounds and liked that USC dominated the rebounding margin against the taller Bulldogs (12-15, 4-10).
The Gamecocks finished with 20 offensive rebounds and held a 41-18 advantage overall.
“We made it a concentrated effort in practice this week and leading up to this game to crash the boards and have post production,” Welch said. “It’s not something new to us to be undersized, but down the stretch we have to control the little things. We can win the rebounding battle, especially offensive rebounds, which come through hustle plays. At the end of the day, we, as a team, have to win the hustle plays.”
As good as the first half was for the Gamecocks, who held a 36-20 halftime lead, the second half was almost as disappointing. They went through long stretches without scoring, had three field goals and were 5-of-10 from the free throw line in the opening 12½ minutes of the second half.
“We came out the second half not so energetic. It’s incredible,” Staley said. “It was tale of two halves. The halftime hurt us more than anything. I’m glad we were able to build the lead and hold on to it. If we were playing anybody else under those circumstances, we probably don’t end up winning.”
Welch also was disappointed in the letdown.
“It was us not coming out with the same energy we came out in the first half and they capitalized on it,” Welch said. “We weren’t executing and making the plays we made in the first half.”
Despite that, USC finished with a 15-point victory in the SEC, tied for its second biggest margin of victory in league games this season.
Khadijah Sessions was making her second straight start in place of Tiffany Mitchell and added 11 points and four of the 14 steals for USC. Elem Ibiam came off the bench to add 11 points and two blocks as eight of the nine active players on the roster scored.
Freshman Asia Dozier, the only player not to score, played three minutes in the first half and is nursing a back injury, Staley said.
Percentages: FG .364, FT .778. 3-Point Goals: 4-10, .400 (Gaynor 3-5, Alwal 1-1, James 0-1, Grant 0-1, May 0-2). Team Rebounds: 3. Blocked Shots: 8 (S. Williams 2, May 2, Grant, Wash, Gaynor, Alwal). Turnovers: 22 (May 8, James 4, Gaynor 3, Grant 3, C. Williams 2, S. Williams, Alwal). Steals: 6 (James 3, Wash, May, Alwal). Technical Fouls: Bench.
Percentages: FG .380, FT .600. 3-Point Goals: 2-8, .250 (White 1-2, Sessions 1-2, Bruner 0-1, Walker 0-1, Mitchell 0-2). Team Rebounds: 9. Blocked Shots: 5 (Welch 2, Ibiam 2, Bruner). Turnovers: 18 (Walker 6, Bruner 4, Sessions 4, Welch 3, Mitchell). Steals: 14 (Walker 5, Sessions 4, Mitchell 2, White 2, Bruner). Technical Fouls: None.
A—3,276. Officials—Eric Koch, Jennifer Rezac, Kylie Galloway.