Ashley Bruner was rocking, Ieasia Walker was rolling, Kelsey Bone was reeling and the USC women’s basketball team appeared to be on the verge of its most important victory of the season.
But while Bone nursed a bruised right knee on a stationary bike, the Gamecocks suddenly found themselves running in place.
The result was a dominant Aggies run that spelled doom for USC in a 61-52 loss in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.
“I thought it was a hard-fought game by both teams,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “Unfortunately for us, we weren’t able to make layups and free throws (and) I thought we turned the ball over a little bit too much.”
Bone scored Texas A&M’s first four points coming out of halftime to keep the Aggies on the right side of a 28-25 lead. That’s when the former Gamecock became entangled with Aleighsa Welch and Bruner during a rebound and fell awkwardly to the court.
While Bone was on the floor, Walker hit a game-tying 3-point basket, completing a rally from an 11-point deficit in the first half.
But instead of seizing the momentum, the Gamecocks lost control.
“We didn’t execute,” Walker said. “We turned the ball over a good amount of the time and they were able to capitalize on our turnovers.”
While the Gamecocks were missing badly on layups, clanking free throws and turning the ball over, the Aggies turned to Bone’s backup, Karla Gilbert and fellow post player Kristi Bellock. That duo accounted for eight points during a 14-5 run that re-established a 42-33 lead as Bone checked back in at the 11:59 mark.
“Basically, bench play is important,” Gilbert said. “We don’t have a lot of 40-minute players, so it’s important for people to come off the bench and be ready and become a part of the chemistry.”
Compounding the Gamecocks’ woes — they allowed Texas A&M to reach the bonus by that point.
“I thought we shot ourselves in the foot because they were shooting in the bonus very early in the second half,” Staley said. “We couldn’t play the defense that we’re used to playing because they were shooting in the bonus.”
Unable to play the same aggressive defense that triggered their early rally, the Gamecocks closed the gap several times, but could not get over the top. The Aggies kept them at arm’s length the rest of the way.
“I just thought they pounded the ball inside,” Staley said. “I thought Gilbert really challenged us. She was a really hard matchup for us (and) got some easy buckets.”
And now, the Gamecocks (24-7) will wait for word from the NCAA tournament selection committee, which should deal USC a fourth or fifth seed at a regional to-be-determined.
Bruner led both teams with 19 points and 11 rebounds, her second consecutive double-double, which should earn her an all-tournament nod despite USC’s early departure. Walker added 15 points.
Bellock led Texas A&M (22-9) with 17 points while Gilbert scored 11. Bone finished with 7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 fouls. The Aggies will face top seed Tennessee today at 4 p.m.
“That was almost as physical as the football games are going to be in the SEC,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. “South Carolina got us ready for Tennessee. We’re going to have a great rivalry over the years between Dawn’s team and our team.”
SOUTH CAROLINA (24-7)
Bruner 8-15 3-9 19, Welch 2-6 4-6 8, Walker 6-19 1-2 15, White 1-2 0-1 2, Mitchell 2-6 2-2 6, Sessions 0-4 0-0 0, Dozier 0-2 0-0 0, Ibiam 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 20-57 10-20 52.
TEXAS A&M (22-9)
Bellock 6-8 5-6 17, Bone 3-9 1-4 7, Williams 2-6 2-2 6, Pratcher 3-14 1-1 8, Walker 2-7 3-4 7, Scott 0-1 0-0 0, Little 0-1 0-0 0, Mitchell 0-0 0-0 0, Jones 1-3 1-2 3, Gilbert 3-3 7-9 13. Totals 20-52 20-28 61.
Halftime_Texas A&M 24-21. 3-Point Goals_South Carolina 2-10 (Walker 2-6, Dozier 0-1, Sessions 0-1, Mitchell 0-2), Texas A&M 1-5 (Pratcher 1-4, Little 0-1). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_South Carolina 46 (Bruner 11), Texas A&M 33 (Williams 11). Assists_South Carolina 10 (Walker 5), Texas A&M 9 (Walker, Williams 3). Total Fouls_South Carolina 21, Texas A&M 20. A_4,819.