Emotions were high before Sunday afternoon’s game where South Carolina honored its three leaders on Senior Day.
It was so emotional at the end when all three left to standing ovations that it caused assistant coach Nikki McCray to tear up.
In between, the Gamecocks took care of business and closed the regular season with an historic 67-56 victory over Florida at the Colonial Life Arena.
The senior trio were part of USC’s best regular season since joining the SEC. The 23 regular seasons wins tie the 1979-80 team for most wins during the regular season and the 11 SEC wins are the most ever since joining the conference. Last year’s team and the 2001-02 squad held the mark with 10.
That 23-6 overall record — and, more importantly, the 11-5 mark in the SEC — earned South Carolina the No. 5 seed in the upcoming SEC Tournament in Duluth, Ga.
The Gamecocks will play Thursday at 2:30 against the winner of Wednesday’s night game between the No. 12 and 13 seeds.
“I thought about the 11 (SEC) wins but I didn’t pay attention to the overall wins,” coach Dawn Staley said. “We want to progress each and every year. We want to show that progression, not only are our players getting better and maturing into good people but also winning.
“Recruits need something tangible. They need to see they are coming to a place is going to get better and they know they’re going to win.”
Staley has shown progression in SEC wins every year of her tenure — 2, 7, 8, 10 to this year’s 11.
“We’re trying to leave a legacy,” senior co-captain Ieasia Walker said. “To keep getting better each shows that we’re doing something right with the process that coach Staley is putting in. It shows the process is paying off.”
In sweeping Florida (17-13, 6-10) on the season, the senior group of Walker, Ashley Bruner and Sancheon White played key roles.
Walker kept things close in the first half while the rest of the team was struggling. She was 5-of-8 from the field and scored 12 points; the rest of the team was 5-of-20 from the field and had scored 13 points. She tied her career-high with eight assists and added five steals.
Bruner did most of her damage in the second half after going 1-for-7 in the first half. She was 5-of-8 in the second half and scored 14 of her team-high 16 points in the second half. Her two baskets to start the second half gave the Gamecocks the lead for good.
“I needed to take my team with my post moves,” Bruner said. “Coach Staley said I was rushing. I felt like I was rushing because of the way they were playing. I came out in the second half with more focus on how to score.”
White scored three points but was her usual defensive-minded self. She is usually tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best offensive option, and she spent most of her time guarding Gators guard Sydney Moss. Moss finished with 16 points but was 6-of-15 from the field.
South Carolina scored the first six points of the second half to break a 25-25 tie. The lead stayed between three and seven points until South Carolina went on a 10-2 run over a four-minute stretch that ended with two Aleighsa Welch free throws with 2:30 remaining to push the lead to 63-49.
With a little over a minute remaining, Staley emptied the bench. Bruner, Walker and White went out to a standing ovation.
“We kept it together pretty well,” Walker said. “It was more of the coaches getting emotional. We tried not to let that get to us. I made sure I had a decent game because my family drove 13 hours to see me play.”
Welch recorded her ninth double-double of the season with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
“This was extremely important just for us to come back and play better at home to get a win going into the SEC Tournament,” Staley said. “It was good for our players psyche and good for the coaches to see what we work so hard on all year is paying off.”
Mercer 1-3 1-2 3, Svete 0-1 0-0 0, George 3-9 4-4 10, Bonds 5-8 1-1 12, Moss 6-15 4-6 16, Miller 2-7 0-0 5, Needles 1-2 0-0 3, Lewis 3-4 1-2 7. Totals 21-49 11-15 56.
SOUTH CAROLINA (23-6)
Bruner 6-15 4-8 16, Welch 4-5 6-9 14, Walker 6-13 2-6 14, White 1-6 1-2 3, Mitchell 2-6 2-2 7, Sessions 1-4 6-8 9, Montout 0-0 0-0 0, Dozier 0-2 0-0 0, Ibiam 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 22-53 21-35 67.
Halftime: Tied 25-25. 3-Point Goals_Florida 3-10 (Needles 1-2, Bonds 1-2, Miller 1-4, Moss 0-1, Svete 0-1), South Carolina 2-9 (Sessions 1-2, Mitchell 1-2, White 0-1, Dozier 0-2, Walker 0-2). Fouled Out: Bonds, Lewis. Rebounds: Florida 33 (Moss 10), South Carolina 38 (Welch 10). Assists: Florida 12 (Bonds, Moss 3), South Carolina 13 (Walker 8). Total Fouls: Florida 26, South Carolina 14. Attendance: 3,343.