Coach Dawn Staley knew she wanted the ball in the hands of either Tiffany Mitchell or Aleighsa Welch, and took a timeout to set up the play.
Mitchell finished perfectly, scoring on a driving layup with 50.9 seconds left to lift No. 10 South Carolina to a 61-57 win over 16th-ranked Vanderbilt on Sunday for the Gamecocks' best-ever start in the SEC. Coupled with Texas A&M's loss to Tennessee, the Gamecocks are tied for first place in the SEC with the Aggies.
Texas A&M holds the season tiebreaker over USC and the Gamecocks cannot equal it. But a tie for first place at the end of the regular season awards regular-season championships to each tied team; the tiebreaker would only be used to determine seeding for the SEC tournament.
"I thought both of them came through at a time when we needed a bucket," Staley said. "They made me look good."
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The Gamecocks (18-2, 6-1 SEC) had never started 6-1 since joining the conference and won their second straight by keeping Staley undefeated in her third trip to Memorial Gym.
With the score tied at 55, Mitchell beat the shot clock and then stole the ball and finished off the fast break with another layup with 34.3 seconds to seal the win. Mitchell finished with 14 points. Welch and Elem Ibiam each added 10.
Vanderbilt (16-4, 5-2) saw its four-game winning streak end as the Commodores missed out on their fourth upset of a ranked team this season.
"Obviously, Tiffany Mitchell is very, very good, and she made those plays," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "There was a couple situations where the shot clock was running down we don't get that loose ball. Instead they get to make a play. We get the loose ball in the first place ... that doesn't happen. ... That's like a knife in your heart when you don't."
Christina Foggie finished with 23 points for Vanderbilt.
South Carolina out-shot the SEC's best shooting team, holding Vanderbilt to 37.3 percent (22 of 59) and a season-low in points. The Gamecocks hit 54 percent (27 of 50) to overcome a season-high 24 turnovers. The Gamecocks did it despite not hitting a 3-pointer, instead using their height advantage in outscoring Vandy 46-32 in the paint.
The Gamecocks also held the SEC's best 3-point shooting team to its worst performance this season. Vanderbilt went 1 of 5 outside the arc.
"If they are able to get off more 3-point shots or makes, they win this basketball game," Staley said. "So kudos to our kids for buying into our game plan and executing it to a T."
Balcomb credited South Carolina with taking the 3 away from a team shooting 42.6 percent beyond the arc and averaging 6.2 made 3s per game.
"That's what they're good at in this conference and that's what they did," Balcomb said.
The Commodores were looking to add South Carolina to their other big SEC wins over Georgia, Tennessee and LSU. But senior guard Jasmine Lister, the SEC's third-leading scorer averaging 16.8 points per game, managed only four and had just three assists.
Vanderbilt took its only lead when Foggie hit the game's lone 3 with 15:47 left at 38-37. Ibiam answered with a bucket putting South Carolina ahead to stay on the next possession. Vanderbilt managed to tie it twice in the final minutes, the last at 55 on a pair of free throws by Marqu'es Webb with 1:20 left.
That set up Mitchell's go-ahead bucket.
"We just have to dig down and play smarter on that last possession," Foggie said. "We left an open layup."
The Commodores, the SEC's best shooting team overall at 48.7 also struggled to hit the basket in the first half with too many shots coming up short. Foggie, the SEC's leading scorer, didn't connect on her first bucket until midway through the first half.
South Carolina led throughout the first half and was up 31-27 at halftime. The Gamecocks took their biggest lead at 23-15 on a three-point play by Dozier with 6:56 left. Vanderbilt used a 10-2 run to tie it up for the third time in the half at 25 only to see South Carolina score six straight, including four free throws by Ibiam.
The Gamecocks head into a very favorable four-game stretch. They will play Ole Miss, Missouri, Mississippi State and Arkansas, who all entered Sunday in the bottom five of the league. All but MSU are home games.
SOUTH CAROLINA (18-2)
Welch 5-9 0-0 10, Dozier 4-9 1-2 9, Ibiam 4-8 2-2 10, Sessions 2-3 2-2 6, Mitchell 7-12 0-0 14, Gaines 1-3 0-0 2, Montout 1-1 2-2 4, Davis 0-0 0-0 0, Roy 0-1 0-0 0, Coates 3-4 0-1 6. Totals 27-50 7-9 61.
Bowe 2-7 0-0 4, Schrann 2-6 0-0 4, Foggie 9-14 4-9 23, Lister 2-8 0-0 4, Batey 1-5 0-0 2, Jenkins 3-10 2-2 8, Webb 1-4 4-6 6, Smith 1-4 0-0 2, Long 1-1 2-2 4. Totals 22-59 12-19 57.
Halftime_South Carolina 31-27. 3-Point Goals_South Carolina 0-2 (Dozier 0-1, Roy 0-1), Vanderbilt 1-5 (Foggie 1-3, Lister 0-2). Fouled Out_Coates. Rebounds_South Carolina 38 (Ibiam 9), Vanderbilt 28 (Jenkins 7). Assists_South Carolina 10 (Mitchell, Welch 3), Vanderbilt 11 (Jenkins, Lister 3). Total Fouls_South Carolina 24, Vanderbilt 18. Attendance_3,554.