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USC women allow opportunity to slip away

South Carolina's Charnee Stephens looks to make a basket over Mississippi State's Tysheka Grimes.
South Carolina's Charnee Stephens looks to make a basket over Mississippi State's Tysheka Grimes.

South Carolina knows that every game down the stretch carries postseason ramifications.

If the Gamecocks are left out of the NCAA tournament by a slim margin, they can look to their heartbreaking 55-53 loss to Mississippi State on Wednesday night at Colonial Life Arena.

USC played one of its worst offensive games in a while - 18 turnovers and 34.9 percent shooting - but it was the plays the Gamecocks failed to execute that cost them a chance to improve their postseason resume against a team they were tied for third with in the SEC entering the game.

"It's very difficult," USC coach Dawn Staley said. "It was a very winnable game, but we didn't deserve to win. We lost the game in our preparation. That's my job to get them right, and they weren't right coming into the game."

The Gamecocks' final chance was a good one, but the result was indicative of how things went all night USC. Trailing by two with 2.9 seconds remaining, the Gamecocks (13-11, 6-6) called timeout remaining after getting the rebound when Alexis Rack missed the second of two free throws for the Bulldogs (16-9, 7-5).

The ball was thrown in near midcourt, and Kelsey Bone took the pass near the free-throw line and dribbled to the right side of the basket, but her layup attempt came up short.

"It was designed for Kelsey to catch it a little bit deeper," Staley said. "We wanted her to get it pretty deep where she didn't have to take it off the dribble. She got a good look."

The game point didn't appear it would come down to the final play as USC trailed 54-46 with 1:46 remaining.

Ieasia Walker started the comeback with a 3-pointer in the corner. Valerie Nainima made it a one-possession game with 57 seconds left with a layup. After a turnover, Nainima scored on another layup and was fouled.

But the junior, who is a 79 percent free-throw shooter, never got a chance to tie the game. Charenee Stephens was whistled for a lane violation, and the Gamecocks trailed by one.

"It was a mistake, (but) it doesn't come down to that one play," Stephens said. "It was a crucial part of the game, but you can't just dwell on that one play. It wasn't a mental thing. I actually was getting into with player on the lower box. It's not anything I'm trying to think about right now."

USC then forced a jump ball in the backcourt, but the possession arrow was in the Bulldogs' favor with 24.6 seconds remaining.

Walker fouled Rack with five seconds remaining. She made the first, setting the stage for the ending.

"I'm mad with how we lost," Staley said. "For me, I'd rather get blown out than come this close and then know the reasons why we lost the game."

Nainima led the Gamecocks with 15 points, and Stephens had 10 points and 10 rebounds. But the teamed seemed to realize this was a loss that could come back to haunt it.

"Every time we lose, it's going to stick because we know it was a game that we could have won," La'Keisha Sutton said. "A loss is a loss, so it doesn't matter who we lose to."

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