South Carolina put together a vintage USC performance against Georgia in the SEC tournament semifinals on Saturday, outrebounding and outscoring the Lady Bulldogs down low to secure its fourth consecutive appearance in the conference title game.
The No. 8 Gamecocks (25-6, 12-4 SEC) battled past a spirited defensive performance in the early going from Georgia (25-6, 12-4 SEC), and emerged with a 71-49 victory.
With star senior forward A’ja Wilson once again starting the game on the bench, the Gamecocks trailed for most of the first quarter, as redshirt junior forward Alexis Jennings produced little offense inside after a fast start against Tennessee in the quarterfinals.
However, once Wilson entered after just over three minutes had elapsed, USC went on a 14-6 run to end the first 10 minutes with a four-point lead. She had nine points by the end of the quarter to lead all scorers and account for over half of USC’s 16 points.
“I’m 100 percent,” Wilson repeated after questions about the vertigo that cost her the regular-season finale. “I would play 40 minutes if (coach Dawn Staley) put in me for that. We’ve been doing pretty good, so I’m not going to shake it up if it’s not broken.”
“As soon as (Wilson) comes in the game, we just instantly want to play harder,” Jennings said.
The sentiment was backed up by Wilson’s plus/minus mark of plus-26, tops among all players.
Also in the first quarter, Wilson scored her 2,267th career point, breaking South Carolina’s all-time scoring record, a 35-year-old mark set by Sheila Foster.
In the second quarter, South Carolina extended its lead to as many as 16 points, with help from junior guard Doniyah Cliney. Cliney was the only Gamecock to hit a 3-pointer against Tennessee, and the only USC guard to make a field goal all game. Against Georgia, she had three 3-pointers in the first half and finished with 14 points, just off her career high. She also added four rebounds and a team-high five assists.
“Obviously, teams are going to play off me, because I don’t really shoot well outside of the 3, but today, my teammates kept telling me to shoot the ball with confidence, and they kept finding me, and I just kept making shots,” Cliney said.
Cliney and Wilson were joined in double figures by sophomore forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who had just four points in the first half but came alive in the third quarter as Georgia started to mount a slight comeback. She scored eight points in the quarter and finished with 14 total.
“I feel like I’ve played with a lot more confidence in myself,” Herbert Harrigan said of her strong performance in the past five games, during which she’s averaged 11.8 points per contest. “I know my ability, I know what I can do. So it’s just going out there and being confident, and my teammates have been doing a great job of finding me and putting me in places where I’m comfortable, so I feel like that helps a lot.”
In the final 10 minutes, Wilson once again reasserted her dominance, working her way up to 21 total points for her 18th 20-point effort of the season, tied for fourth most in USC history. She recorded that total on 8-of-13 shooting, leading an efficient performance from the entire USC squad, who shot 57 percent from the field for the game.
“Georgia is notorious for defending and holding teams to low percentages and low points,” Staley said. “We wanted to just make sure we get out and take advantage of transition, so it won’t put so much pressure on our half court offenses. And I thought we did that. We did that through rebounding the ball and pushing.”
The Lady Bulldogs, meanwhile, shot just 30 percent, and despite exploiting South Carolina’s contined trouble with turnovers for 18 takeaways, they were able to convert that into just 15 points. They were also out-rebounded by the Gamecocks, 41-28.
“We’re playing too fast,” Staley said of the team’s turnover woes. “We’re playing faster than our skill set. And when that gets out of whack, it usually leads to turnovers. I like the fact that we’re rebounding the ball though. So our turnovers are up, (but) our rebounding is up as well.”
With the victory, South Carolina advances to the SEC title game for the fourth consecutive season, where it will face undefeated Mississippi State for the third time in three years. The top-seeded Bulldogs defeated Texas A&M immediately before the South Carolina-Georgia contest, 70-55.
Tipoff for Sunday’s championship game is scheduled for 4:30 p.m., and it will be televised on ESPN2.
GEORGIA (24-7)—Engram 4-10 2-2 10, Robinson 4-12 0-4 8, Clark 1-6 0-0 2, Cole 2-9 4-4 8, Morrison 3-10 1-2 8, Bates 0-2 0-2 0, Paul 1-2 0-0 2, Blanaru 0-0 0-0 0, Caldwell 1-3 2-4 5, Connally 3-10 0-0 6, Costa 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 19-64 9-18 49.
SOUTH CAROLINA (26-5)—Herbert Harrigan 6-9 2-2 14, Jennings 2-4 3-4 7, Cliney 5-8 1-2 14, Harris 3-7 2-2 9, Jackson 0-0 2-2 2, Grissett 2-4 0-0 4, Williams 0-1 0-0 0, Wilson 8-13 5-6 21, Patrick 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 26-46 15-18 71.
3-Point Goals—Georgia 2-14 (Engram 0-4, Robinson 0-1, Cole 0-1, Morrison 1-4, Caldwell 1-2, Connally 0-2), South Carolina 4-7 (Herbert Harrigan 0-1, Cliney 3-4, Harris 1-2). Assists—Georgia 13 (Cole 8), South Carolina 14 (Cliney 5). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Georgia 28 (Morrison 8), South Carolina 41 (Wilson 11). Total Fouls—Georgia 19, South Carolina 12. Technical Fouls—None. A—8,819.