Dawn Staley stayed calm, even as her team was lethargically going through the motions on Saturday. Perhaps she knew that a no-zip performance was coming, after No. 13 South Carolina returned from Christmas break.
And that playing in any kind of close game, whether just the opening minute or the first 13 minutes, would be helpful in the near future.
“A marathon is not won in the first mile. I didn’t panic,” Staley said. “Sooner or later, we opened the game up and did what we should have done a lot sooner. But it’s good for us to play in tight situations like that, going into SEC play.”
The Gamecocks (12-1) finished their nonconference season with an 82-40 pasting of ragged Savannah State, a 21-9 pre-halftime run doing most of the damage against the foul-ravaged Tigers and a 10-0 spurt to start the second half completing it. USC overcame a non-energetic start and a high-energy but sloppy continuance with a career day from blossoming star Tiffany Mitchell and got ready for its second season — the SEC schedule, which begins at 8 p.m. on Thursday in Arkansas.
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“Once we got going, we started to get in the groove of things, started knocking down shots from the outside,” Asia Dozier said. “We know going into the SEC, we’re going to have to put two halves together.”
Their offense held to Dozier’s drives to the rim and free throws courtesy of the foul-at-all-costs Tigers (5-7), USC slogged through the first 13 minutes with a 22-16 lead. Mitchell, taking more and more of the go-to burden from the sturdy shoulders of forward Aleighsa Welch, decided she’d seen enough.
Mitchell made a short jumper following an Olivia Gaines miss, then made one of two free throws. Gaines and Welch combined for the next six points, then Mitchell hit two free throws and drove the lane, flipping to a wide-open Welch for an easy deuce.
Mitchell sparked the pre-halftime run, and the Gamecocks put the Tigers to bed with the first 10 points of the second half. She set career-highs with 16 free-throw attempts and 12 makes, matched a career-high with five steals, hauled in seven rebounds and had four assists.
“Actually, I got my wrist hurt in the S.C. State game, so I was kind of hesitant to play today,” Mitchell said. “I’m feeling better. I feel better than I did over the break.”
Alaina Coates scored 17 points with 12 rebounds, her third double-double of the season, while Welch had 14 in 23 minutes and Dozier had 10. USC shot 51.1 percent from the field and 30-of-48 from the line, although a 20-of-27 performance in the first half eased a lot of concerns.
The nonconference season ended with a terrific record, a loss to the best team USC played and plenty of minutes and experience for a young team. Staley saw good and bad, and knows that the SEC will severely test the Gamecocks.
“If you’re not fearful of the league, then you’re probably not in the right league,” Staley said. “Anybody can win. What we need to do is find out how we can equal the playing field.”
“I think we are ready,” Mitchell said. “We know that the cupcakes are over, and we’re going to have to be ready to play.”
SAVANNAH ST. (5-7)
Davis 0-2 2-2 2, Dorsey 1-8 0-0 2, Hendrix 1-2 0-0 3, Williams 1-4 0-0 3, Hanton 0-1 0-0 0, Norman 3-11 0-0 6, Pollard 0-1 0-0 0, Warren 0-0 0-0 0, Kirkland 6-9 7-8 19, Graham 0-1 0-0 0, Kalu 1-9 3-4 5, Greene 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 13-49 12-14 40.
SOUTH CAROLINA (12-1)
Welch 5-9 4-6 14, Dozier 4-8 0-0 10, Ibiam 1-7 3-4 5, Davis 3-3 0-2 8, Mitchell 3-5 12-16 18, Farmer 0-0 0-0 0, Gaines 3-5 1-2 7, Montout 0-0 0-2 0, Morrison 0-0 1-2 1, Roy 1-5 0-0 2, Coates 4-5 9-14 17. Totals 24-47 30-48 82.
Halftime_South Carolina 43-25. 3-Point Goals_Savannah St. 2-10 (Hendrix 1-2, Williams 1-3, Pollard 0-1, Kalu 0-4), South Carolina 4-6 (Davis 2-2, Dozier 2-2, Mitchell 0-1, Roy 0-1). Fouled Out_Davis, Greene. Rebounds_Savannah St. 27 (Dorsey 6), South Carolina 39 (Coates 12). Assists_Savannah St. 6 (Dorsey 2), South Carolina 13 (Welch 5). Total Fouls_Savannah St. 31, South Carolina 17. A_4,824.