In a tense, heated matchup of top-15 rivals at Colonial Life Arena on Sunday, South Carolina women’s basketball hung tough and pulled away late against Missouri for a 64-54 win — but not before some extracurricular activity nearly derailed the game.
The Gamecocks (18-3, 7-2 SEC) and the Tigers (17-4, 5-3 SEC) entered Sunday’s contest already angry after USC head coach Dawn Staley was ejected from the team’s first contest, a loss for USC on Jan. 7, and South Carolina fans accused MU of playing dirty.
“Anytime you lose to a team, there’s a revenge factor,” Staley acknowledged of the first game’s impact on Sunday. “I think our team was on high alert just to compete every play and not to give into fatigue, not to give into anything that happened out there on the floor. And they did that.”
Indeed, from the opening tip, it was clear that neither side was interested in backing down, as physical play ended with members of both teams on the floor without fouls being called in the first quarter.
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Still, Staley insisted both before and after the game that the Mizzou-South Carolina rivalry hasn’t resulted in any personal ill will or bad blood.
“It means a win in the SEC, nothing more, nothing less,” Staley said after the victory. “They don’t mean any more than a win in the SEC.”
All the same, it was clear that both teams on edge, and things reached a boiling point with 2:17 left in the second quarter, when South Carolina redshirt junior forward Alexis Jennings and Missouri redshirt senior forward Kayla Michael went to the floor after a loose ball.
As the two players scrapped for the ball and the referees whistled the play dead on a jump ball, shoving broke out and both teams converged. Replays showed Mizzou star Sophie Cunningham throwing several pushes, as well as Jennings and her teammate, junior guard Doniyah Cliney.
The game then stopped for a length review, at the end of which the officials assessed a technical foul on Missouri’s bench, offsetting unsportsmanlike calls on Cliney and Cunningham and two ejections for Tiger reserves who came onto the court.
The score at the time of the scrap was 26-25, in favor of Missouri. By halftime, it was tied up at 29 all.
Into the second half, Missouri continued to frustrate USC’s front line of star A’ja Wilson and Alexis Jennings by packing the paint with as many as four players anytime the Gamecocks went inside.
“Honestly, I think that had a lot to do with me,” Wilson said of her early struggles. “I was speeding up a lot of things. I didn’t feel comfortable. But I think that was more on my side, because there were clean looks. Honestly, there were. But it wasn’t falling for me and that’s what set me back, because I got hard on myself.”
Sophomore guard Tyasha Harris and Cliney, however, managed to take advantage of several wide open looks from beyond the arc, sinking two 3-pointers apiece. All told, USC finished the game shooting 38.9 percent from 3, up from its season average of 33.7 percent. Harris led the Gamecocks with 19 points, four rebounds and four assists.
“Yeah, it was a little disrespectful,” Harris said of Mizzou’s lack of defense on the perimeter, daring her to shoot. “I take it to heart, but I don’t let it get to me and I don’t try to press any shots. I just let the flow of the game take over and at the time, I took open shots and they went in.”
Jennings struggled in the early going, going 0-for-4 from the field through the first three quarters. However, she managed to contribute two key layups in the game’s final minutes, helping South Carolina finish the contest on a 15-5 run after the game was tied 49-49 with 4:32 left to play.
Wilson, meanwhile, got more aggressive as the game went on and fought through heavy traffic for several key rebounds late. She finished with 15 points, including six in the fourth quarter, 15 rebounds and four blocks, for her 13th double-double of the year.
“A’ja and Alexis, they’re just a load,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “They’re so talented, and not only offensively do they impact the game, but defensively, and from a rebounding perspective, they just attract so much attention.”
By comparison, Cunningham, who led her team with 18 points, went silent down the stretch, scoring her last points with 7:25 left to play and going 0-for-4 from the field the rest of the way.
For its next game, South Carolina takes a break from conference play to host No. 1 Connecticut on Thursday. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Greg Hadley: @GregHadley9
MISSOURI (17-4)—Frericks 4-11 2-2 10, Porter 0-1 1-2 1, Aldridge 3-4 0-0 7, Cunningham 8-20 0-2 18, Smith 4-9 0-0 9, Michael 2-5 0-0 6, Schuchts 1-3 0-0 3, Chavis 0-2 0-0 0, Roundtree 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 22-55 3-6 54.
SOUTH CAROLINA (18-3)—Jennings 2-7 3-4 7, Wilson 5-15 5-8 15, Cliney 3-5 0-0 8, Harris 6-13 5-8 19, Jackson 1-6 2-2 5, Grissett 0-1 0-0 0, Herbert Harrigan 2-6 2-2 7, Patrick 1-5 0-0 3, Totals 20-58 17-24 64.
3-Point Goals—Missouri 7-19 (Frericks 0-1, Aldridge 1-2, Cunningham 2-7, Smith 1-2, Michael 2-3, Schuchts 1-3, Chavis 0-1), South Carolina 7-18 (Cliney 2-3, Harris 2-5, Jackson 1-5, Herbert Harrigan 1-1, Patrick 1-4). Assists—Missouri 11 (Frericks 2), South Carolina 11 (Harris 4). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Missouri 33 (Frericks 8), South Carolina 39 (Wilson 15). Total Fouls—Missouri 20, South Carolina 14. A—13,433.