David Cloninger

Cloninger: Gamecocks are used to winning, and it shows

Tiffany Mitchell takes over in the fourth quarter at Mississippi State.
Tiffany Mitchell takes over in the fourth quarter at Mississippi State. AP

They still have some mind-boggling mental miscues in crucial situations. There is still a held breath across Gamecock Nation whenever they’re shooting a free throw.

But man, is it fun to watch South Carolina when it’s time to close out a tight game.

It was happening again on Sunday. The Gamecocks had control and lost it when Victoria Vivians was Jaws and Doniyah Cliney was Matt Hooper in the cage under the Orca. Dawn Staley had gambled, putting the freshman Cliney (who’s really fast but really inexperienced) on Vivians with Khadijah Sessions in foul trouble, and she was on the verge of crapping out as Vivians shook a game-long slump to bring Mississippi State back.

It was shaping up to be sour. Even as much as the Gamecocks have won over the past three years, I suppose it’s the overall "USC" ingrained in the psyche. "Don’t hope," a longtime fan once described it to me. "It’ll only end up hurting worse."

This team is still waiting for the pain. It keeps finding ways, even when a lot is against it, to win.

Thanks to some, um, curious officiating (OK, horrendous), the Gamecocks’ posts couldn’t move inside without contact which wasn’t whistled. If MSU’s sterling defense made it tough to move, well, it wasn’t a foul, it was a charge or a travel. The stripes were equal on each side (equally bad) but it took USC’s best offensive approach out of the game.

So in a one-point game, Vivians heated to scorching and Sessions on the bench, it looked bleak. USC couldn’t count on going inside, couldn’t count on making free throws if an inside shot missed (this program, for whatever reason, just hasn’t mastered charity points) and couldn’t count on outside shooting. The Gamecocks turned to what they always know they can count on – senior Tiffany Mitchell.

Again, she ducked into the phone booth and again she emerged, red cape flapping and boots tugged tight. "Superwoman" scored seven straight points after MSU had cut the deficit to one, and despite the Gamecocks’ chronic problems from the line, they made their last four as the Bulldogs forced them to win it from the line.

Call it talent taking over, call it experience, but the Gamecocks aren’t fazed by situations. They keep answering in big games, either giving each other that look that it’s time to quit fooling around or knowing that one play is going to go their way to provide the win (A&M, anyone?) Sunday improved their three-year SEC record to an eye-popping 36-3 and although there are nine games to play, USC has a stranglehold on the standings.

Even in the midst of a 10-game stretch featuring eight Top 25 teams (and up next, an unranked Ole Miss squad that beat Kentucky), the Gamecocks are never out, even when they’re down so much it appears they soon will be.

I keep hearing that it’s inevitable they’ll lose. I’ve thought it myself, watching some of these games.

Yet here they are again, undefeated through 19 games and surviving a trip where the largest crowd to watch a basketball game in Mississippi history was on hand to see them suffer their first loss.

I gotta look that guy up and see if he’s allowing himself to hope now that he’s not being disappointed.

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