Coming into Thursday’s top-15 matchup between Mississippi State and South Carolina women’s basketball, each team’s strength was clear.
No. 7 MSU could rebound the ball better than almost anyone in the country, led by All-American senior center Teaira McCowan. No. 15 USC had explosive guards who could put up points in bunches and rain 3s when they were hot.
And sure enough, both teams got exactly that in a thrilling battle that featured eight lead changes and six ties. Ultimately, the Bulldogs’ prowess on the boards was too much, as they handed the Gamecocks an 89-74 defeat.
South Carolina (12-5, 4-1 SEC) entered the road contest as the clear underdog but took the fight to MSU (17-1, 5-0 SEC) early by making two-thirds of its shots in the first quarter. Junior guard Tyasha Harris made a pair of 3-pointers early, and redshirt junior guard Te’a Cooper added a buzzer-beater from beyond the arc to close the period.
Mississippi State, meanwhile, shot just 39 percent to start but absolutely dominated the rebounding battle, with a 15-4 advantage, including 11 offensive rebounds that led to 13 second-chance points, 16 points in the paint and a 26-23 lead after 10 minutes.
“We did the best we could” coach Dawn Staley told reporters of her team’s rebounding woes, according to 247Sports. “We have to figure something out before March.”
USC forwards Alexis Jennings and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan had no answer for MSU forward Anriel Howard and McCowan, and toward the end of the first quarter, they each picked up two quick fouls that forced them to the bench for the rest of the half.
At first, their absence hardly seemed to matter, as the Gamecocks’ long-range shooting continued at a torrid pace to start the second quarter. With 7:06 to play in the first half, Carolina took its largest lead of the night — six points — off a jumper by Cooper.
That burst was helped by the fact that Howard got into foul trouble of her own to start the quarter and had to be benched. Without her, Harris and Cooper continued to penetrate the lane with relative ease, and both players scored in double figures by the second media timeout.
“We struggled with them off the bounce. They are so good off the bounce,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said.
After that timeout, however, Mississippi State went on a 10-4 run to end the quarter and take a five-point lead into the break. The Bulldogs rebounded 14 of their 18 misses in the half, and McCowan contributed 15 points and nine rebounds without committing a foul, despite South Carolina’s pregame plan to attack and fluster her.
Cooper had 16 points at the half on 7-of-11 shooting, but she cooled off dramatically in the third quarter with just two points and four turnovers. Mississippi State, meanwhile, retook the lead thanks to senior guard Jordan Danberry, who posted a season-high 18 points, and a switch to a zone defense that flustered the Gamecocks.
“‘I’ve never seen (MSU) play so much zone,” Staley told reporters, according to WTVA. “That’s a credit to our players that they had to make that adjustment.
Late in the quarter again, however, USC battled back thanks to a pair of 3-pointers from Herbert Harrigan — she entered the game having made six in her career. With seven seconds left in the period, Cooper made one of two free throws, South Carolina got the offensive board on the second, and she managed to bank in another buzzer-beating 3 to cut the Bulldog lead to 65-64.
Into the final 10 minutes, the wheels fell off for USC, as the Gamecocks shot just 20 percent from the field. McCowan kept at it, posting her fifth career game with 20 points and 20 rebounds, and Howard stayed on the floor with four fouls to make several crucial free throws. With 2:24 to play, two of those free throws put the Bulldogs up by double digits for good.
Star of the game: Te’a Cooper led the Gamecocks with 27 points, but Tyasha Harris was much more efficient tallying 17 points on 10 field goal attempts to go with four assists and most importantly, no turnovers.
Stat of the game: Mississippi State had more offensive rebounds (23) than South Carolina had total boards (20), before a flurry of garbage-time rebounds put the Gamecocks at 24 for the game.
Key piece missing: In the first minute of the game, Misssissippi State’s Chloe Bibby, the team’s best 3-point shooter, drove toward the lane and buckled when her left knee gave out. She was helped off the court, unable to put any weight on her injured leg, and went straight to the locker room, never returning.
Questionable call: Mikiah Herbert Harrigan’s second personal foul of the game, which came in the first quarter, was an unsportsmanlike penalty assessed after she caught the ball and swung around to the basket, catching a Mississippi State player with her elbow while doing so. While the announcers and analysts on ESPN, as well as many on social media, felt the contact was incidental and not deserving an unsportsmanlike foul, the referees called it after a two-minute review.
South Carolina returns home to host rival Missouri on Monday at 7 p.m. The Tigers and Gamecocks will be televised on ESPN2.