Khadijah Sessions sank the game-winning free throw with 0.9 seconds to play for a 59-58 win over No. 15 Texas A&M on Sunday, keeping No. 2 South Carolina perfect on the season and in first place in the SEC. The victory was clinched after the Gamecocks (17-0, 5-0) eked ahead, fell behind, tied, got back ahead, lost the lead on a play too perfect to dream about and then had Sessions at the line.
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“It happened so fast, I almost didn’t believe that the layup went in,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “As coaches, you can review and go over all of those late-game situations. As much as you do it, it can turn out looking like that. Things are so unpredictable.”
USC was celebrating because Sessions made one of two free throws for a 58-56 lead with 3.4 seconds to play. A&M had a chance, but everything would have to go perfect.
It did, as Taylor Cooper threw a baseball pass Grant Hill would envy to Chelsea Jennings, who outran USC’s coverage to come under the ball and lay it in. In a blink, the game was tied and headed to overtime, except …
“I was actually shocked,” Sessions said. “I thought they were going to let the clock run out and go to overtime.”
A&M’s Shlonte Allen, just inserted into the game, had unthinkingly fouled Sessions on the inbound pass after the layup. There was no way anyone could get downcourt – the only chance the Gamecocks had to win in regulation was to hit an 80-foot heave.
But there was the whistle, and Sessions was headed back to the line.
“I don’t think all of our teammates knew the situation, that we had tied the game,” Jordan Jones said. “They went for the first instinct, which was to foul.”
“Yeah, we screwed up,” Aggies coach Gary Blair said. “That was a kid coming of the bench. I’ll take the blame for that. As an athlete and a coach, you live with that the rest of your life.”
Sessions had the two easiest shots to take for a 43-game home winning streak. She clanked the first one.
“When I missed my first, I was listening to coach (Lisa) Boyer, she was saying, ‘Two fingers, two fingers!,’” Sessions said. “I’m not saying it was easy, but it went in, right?”
The second one splashed to end an extremely competitive game and of the weirdest final-minute sequences ever played. Consider:
▪ Two-time SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell bricked two free throws with 20 seconds that would’ve clinched the game.
▪ Not wishing to let Jones, Courtney Walker or Jennings tie or win the game with their excellent mid-range shooting, USC fouled Jones to make her tie it from the line. Jones was supposed to make the first and intentionally miss the second, so A&M could put it back and win. She missed the first and made the second.
▪ Sessions was fouled with 3.4 seconds to go and could lock it down with two makes. She missed the first.
▪ Cooper was put in just to throw the pass and it unfolded just the way they drew it up. Yet it was no miracle. “We work on these type of situations in practice,” Jones said. “Chelsea Jennings did exactly what we wanted her to do.”
It ended a game with 19 lead changes and four ties. The Aggies (13-5, 3-2) matched USC’s superior height with their outside shooting and rebounding until A’ja Wilson got going, and then took the lead when Jones exploited her matchup with Bianca Cuevas. The Gamecocks rallied behind Cuevas and Sessions, though, the sophomore displaying her speed and ability to steal the ball up top and the senior playing through a bruised thigh.
Staley, who’s probably seen every play and every end-of-game situation in her lengthy basketball life, could hardly find the words.
“It’s certainly putting our coaching staff in the position of having our stress levels off the charts,” she said.
Allen’s foul gave the Gamecocks another chance when they had just squandered another opportunity. “You saw what happened with the Texas A&M player,” Staley said. “You don’t want to foul, but things were moving so fast.”
Star of the game: Wilson took over the scoring as the Gamecocks struggled to hit from anywhere outside the paint. She had 26 points with eight rebounds and matched her career-high (set last game) with eight blocks. At one point, she scored 14 straight USC points and assisted on the two immediately after. “She’s the deal,” Blair said.
Play of the game: Sessions made the free throw to win it after the Gamecocks had been pretty good from the line all day. Yet they slipped in the final 74 seconds, missing five of seven.
Stat of the game: The Aggies scored 19 points off 16 USC turnovers. The Gamecocks had 24 off 15.
FROM THE BASELINE
Look inside: It’s becoming the Gamecocks’ sole offense, which isn’t a problem since nobody can stop it. Just give the ball to A’ja. She’s being aggressive, finishing through contact and is also a beast on defense. While it reduces Alaina Coates’ role somewhat, the two are doing well together as an I-Start-You-Finish combo. They had four straight buckets where one found the other underneath the basket.
B: Cuevas played very well in relief of Sessions, which was needed. Sessions was clearly not herself, grimacing during halfcourt plays, but still running full speed on breaks. The Gamecocks needed Cuevas to be Good Bianca and she was – finishing with nine points, including her eighth 3-pointer of the year to give USC a 43-40 lead in the fourth, and deflected several balls to start fastbreaks.
Who: South Carolina at Auburn
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Auburn Arena, Auburn, Ala.
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TEXAS A&M (13-5)
Hillsman 1-2 0-0 2, Howard 2-5 0-0 4, Jennings 7-14 0-0 14, Jones 6-10 2-3 17, Walker 7-18 2-2 16, C. Williams 1-10 0-0 2, Cooper 0-0 0-0 0, Allen 0-0 0-0 0, Knox 0-2 0-0 0, D. Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Lumpkin 1-3 1-3 3, Mitchell 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 25-68 5-8 58.
SOUTH CAROLINA (17-0)
Sessions 3-5 2-4 8, Wilson 11-19 4-6 26, Mitchell 4-13 2-5 11, Dozier 0-1 0-0 0, Coates 2-5 1-2 5, Cuevas 3-6 2-2 9, Roy 0-3 0-0 0, Imovbioh 0-2 0-0 0, White 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-54 11-19 59.
3-Point Goals_Texas A&M 3-7 (Jones 3-5, C. Williams 0-1, Knox 0-1), South Carolina 2-12 (Cuevas 1-1, Mitchell 1-5, Dozier 0-1, Sessions 0-2, Roy 0-3). Fouled Out_Jones. Rebounds_Texas A&M 43 (Howard 9), South Carolina 33 (Coates 11). Assists_Texas A&M 12 (Walker 5), South Carolina 12 (Coates 3). Total Fouls_Texas A&M 21, South Carolina 14. Attendance_15,406.