There was a celebration from the beginning to end Thursday night at the Colonial Life Arena. The South Carolina women’s basketball team opened the evening by receiving their 2014 SEC regular-season championship rings and unveiling two banners recognizing that and the run to the Sweet 16 last season.
It ended with the crowd on it’s feet hoping for the Gamecocks to reach the 100-point mark against rival Clemson. That didn’t happen, but everything in-between was good as No. 2 South Carolina placed six players in double figures in a 99-41 dismantling of the Tigers in front of 11,012 fans.
The victory stretches the Gamecocks’ home-winning streak to 20 games and gives them five consecutive wins against Clemson. The 58-point margin of victory is the largest in the 60-game series between the rivals. The previous largest margin of victory was an 89-55 win by the Gamecocks in 1980.
“It’s a big deal, especially for me being a senior,” South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch said. “We all know about the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry when it comes to football, but we take it seriously in basketball, as well. You never want to lose to a school instate. It’s big for me to come in and beat them all four years.”
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It was mix of the old and the new for the Gamecocks.
Freshman A’ja Wilson came off of the bench to score 18 points to pace the attack. She was joined by two other freshmen in double figures. Jatarie White added 11 points and Bianca Cuevas chipped in with 10. A trio of holdovers contributed, with Welch scoring 17 points, Tiffany Mitchell chipping in with 15 and Alaina Coates producing a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was pleased with the effort.
“It’s always great to see our younger players learn from game to game,” Staley said. “For them to perform the way they did tonight will only boost their confidence. Also, it will make them work a little bit harder, because they knew what they did to get out on the floor. Hopefully, our practices will get a lot better. I enjoyed seeing our experienced players come out and give us a lift and get us going in the right direction.”
It was a stark contrast to what happened in the season-opener on Saturday. The Gamecocks (2-0) trailed Southern Cal late before pulling away for a nine-point victory.
That didn’t set well with Staley or the players. Staley made a change to the starting lineup that seemed to pay dividends. Khadijah Sessions started at the point and allowed Mitchell to move back to her more natural position of shooting guard. Mitchell started out at the point against the Trojans and committed six turnovers. South Carolina had seven against Clemson (2-1).
“I thought, with that change, it would put everybody in their more natural positions,” Staley said. “I thought it would help our overall confidence and it would give us a little more intensity.”
That moved Wilson, who missed practice time with an illness this week, to the bench, and she responded by hitting 6-of-8 shots and feeling more confident in her game.
“I had the first-game jitters on Saturday,” last year’s consensus No. 1 high school player in the country said. “I was very nervous, even though I’m nervous before every game. This game, coming off the bench, I felt more comfortable. I learned from Saturday to let the game come to me and don’t rush things and trust my teammates.”
Clemson, which has nine freshmen and 10 newcomers on its 14-player roster, scored the opening four points, but the Gamecocks responded with an 13-0 run to take control. It was all South Carolina from that point, with the lead reaching 60 points.
South Carolina shot 52.8 percent with 25 assists on 38 field goals. The Gamecocks were 8-of-15 from the three-point line to counter the zone defense of the Tigers.
Clemson coach Audra Smith, who was a teammate of Staley at Virginia, came away a believer in the Gamecocks.
“First of all, I have to give major kudos to Dawn Staley, and what she’s done here with this program is absolutely phenomenal,” Smith said. “Obviously, we see why they’re the No. 2 team in the country. With that size and athleticism, they have a tremendous amount of weapons. If they shoot the three-ball as well as they shot it tonight, you guys will definitely see them cut down the nets in Tampa. That’s for sure.”
South Carolina returns to action Sunday against San Diego State at the Colonial Life Arena at 2 p.m.
Davenport 1-5 0-0 3, Lewis 3-11 0-0 7, Lindsay 0-4 0-0 0, Atkism 4-6 0-0 8, Perry 4-6 1-2 9, Cardaci 1-1 0-0 3, Johnson 1-2 0-0 2, Provo 0-9 1-2 1, Mosley 2-4 0-0 4, Dixon 1-3 0-0 3, Carter 0-1 1-2 1, Wright 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 17-53 3-6 41.
SOUTH CAROLINA (2-0)
Sessions 2-3 2-3 7, Welch 8-11 1-3 17, Mitchell 6-8 0-0 15, Ibiam 1-2 1-1 3, Coates 4-10 4-7 12, Farmer 0-0 0-0 0, Cuevas 4-10 0-0 10, Gaines 0-4 0-0 0, Duckett 0-0 0-0 0, Davis 1-2 0-0 3, Wilson 6-8 6-7 18, Dozier 1-2 0-0 3, White 5-12 1-1 11. Totals 38-72 15-22 99.
Halftime: South Carolina 45-21. 3-Point Goals: Clemson 4-17 (Cardaci 1-1, Dixon 1-1, Lewis 1-3, Davenport 1-3, Perry 0-1, Lindsay 0-3, Provo 0-5), South Carolina 8-15 (Mitchell 3-4, Cuevas 2-6, Sessions 1-1, Davis 1-2, Dozier 1-2). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Clemson 28 (Johnson 7), South Carolina 50 (Coates 10). Assists: Clemson 8 (Perry 3), South Carolina 25 (Mitchell 5). Total Fouls: Clemson 19, South Carolina 7. Attendance: 11,012.