The streak still lives.
South Carolina women’s basketball shrugged off its underdog status in the SEC tournament final on Sunday to put together a thorough and dominant performance against top-seeded Mississippi State, upsetting the Bulldogs 62-51 for the Gamecocks’ fourth consecutive conference tourney title.
“Our players were ready to play the game, and they stayed engaged for 40 minutes. And that’s the kind of effort it took to beat a team like Mississippi State,” coach Dawn Staley said.
USC (26-6, 12-4 SEC) spoiled what had been a perfect season for MSU (32-1, 16-0 SEC), never trailing after the first quarter and leading for 33:44 of the game’s 40 minutes. In doing so, Staley’s squad also got redemption and revenge from its 67-53 defeat to the Bulldogs on Feb. 5, in which Mississippi State outscored South Carolina 28-9 in the final 10 minutes.
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“We knew we had to do something different. We didn’t want to come out like the regular season game, so we had to mix it up a little bit,” junior guard Doniyah Cliney said of that first matchup. “All game, it could have went left. But we had to keep composure. Turnovers hurt us a little bit from me ... but we just had to hold on to the lead. We couldn’t let them come back in the game, no matter what it took.”
In the early going, the two teams’ biggest stars made little impact. For South Carolina, All-American A’ja Wilson came off the bench again and was 2-of-7 from the field in the first half, and sophomore guard Tyasha Harris was scoreless in the first quarter. For Mississippi State, All-American Victoria Vivians had just six points through the first two quarters, while center Teaira McCowan picked up two quick fouls and played just four total minutes.
Without those players, South Carolina took a 30-19 lead thanks to the contributions of underclassmen — sophomore forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan scored 11 points in the first quarter off perfect 4-for-4 shooting, while freshman guard Bianca Jackson added five points in the second quarter for seven total in the first half.
“I feel like they were sagging off me a little bit. Some shots she was there contesting, but I mean, at the end of the day, when I get the ball, I just want the ball to go through the hole, so I just had to go out there and be confident,” Herbert Harrigan said.
After halftime, however, both Wilson and Vivians lead their teams in scoring in the third quarter, trading basket for basket, culminating in Wilson sinking an acrobatic layup that ended with her on the floor of Bridgestone Arena, punching the air in delight. Wilson also drew a pivotal third foul on McCowan in the quarter, forcing her back to the bench.
“That’s the game of basketball,” Wilson said of her decision to attack McCowan. “You know when you got one big in foul trouble, if she gets back, you’re going to attack her. They would have done the same if I was in foul trouble.”
Into the final period, Wilson received some help from Harris, who exploded to score eight points in the last 10 minutes on four crisp jumpers. Harris also added five rebounds and seven assists on the game, including a crucial one to redshirt Alexis Jennings late in the fourth quarter to stop a Mississippi State run and preserve USC’s lead.
“The whole team was locked in. We knew that last game, they did turn things around in the fourth quarter, and we had to change that,” Harris said. “Like I said, we made adjustments, and I just tried to attack the basket whenever I could, and throw it to my teammates, and they finished as well.”
Wilson, Harris and Herbert Harrigan were all named to the SEC all-tournament team, and Wilson was named the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player for the second time. South Carolina is now the only team in conference history to win four consecutive SEC titles.
“I just thought our kids wanted to create their own history ... and they were determined to do it,” Staley said.
“This is a great feeling to never lose in the SEC tournament. That’s rare, and just to be a part of history once again, it’s a blessing and an honor. The SEC is not an easy conference at all, so for us to come out and do what we did, especially from a season where people were doubting us, it’s definitely a great feeling,” Wilson said.
South Carolina will now learn its NCAA tournament seed on Selection Monday, March 12, and seem all but certain to host the first two rounds of the tourney the following weekend.