Watch as South Carolina celebrates SEC tournament title
There was no cake after claiming the regular-season celebration, no balloons after 16-0. South Carolina said it was saving the celebrations for later.
Spring break, Florida and an SEC tournament championship?
Go nuts, ladies.
The Gamecocks rolled Mississippi State 66-52 Sunday for their second straight SEC tournament title, completing an unbeaten year in the conference. USC and 2010-11 Tennessee are the only SEC teams to go 19-0 through the regular season and tournament.
It was a goal for Dawn Staley’s bunch, one that eluded them by a game last year. That’s why the party was shelved until after this weekend – title was good, 16-0 was great, but they were so close to another piece of history, why not make it excellent?
They did, and it was time to let their hair down.
“I feel like we’re the queens of the SEC, so I feel like we really deserve this, so why not celebrate?,” said all-tournament selection A’ja Wilson.
They waded through the yellow and blue confetti to grab their new garnet T-shirts and gray ballcaps, once again proclaiming them the champions of the league. Senior Tiffany Mitchell was named tournament MVP after scoring 47 points in three games and each team member climbed the ladder to snip the net.
Staley, used to clipping the last strand and then wearing the net-klace, promised the Gamecocks a short break but also made it clear – they’re not done.
“I think we got to play a lot more. We got to scrimmage a lot more,” she said. “In order for you to get back to winning the big trophy, the national championship trophy, you have to be in familiar territory.”
They were Sunday, as the undisputed top team in the SEC. The Gamecocks won their third game of the weekend much like their second – by turning a vicious defense loose on the Bulldogs and their star scorer, Victoria Vivians.
Vivians still got 26, half of MSU’s total, but much of it was through USC’s relentless pressure. Showing different looks, sometimes bringing 6-foot-4 forward Alaina Coates to the perimeter to help double-team, Vivians had her avenues cut off and was forced to take contested long-range shots.
The Gamecocks knew they couldn’t completely stop her so they doubled Vivians when they could, then dropped back to guard the others. With defensive maestro Khadijah Sessions leading the way, the rest of MSU was a mere 10-of-32 from the floor.
Point guard Morgan William was forced to dribble too much for comfort, leading to USC steal-and-scores. She had seven turnovers as the Gamecocks were simply too big, too tall and too active.
The Bulldogs had 12 first-half turnovers that led to 14 USC points. A 12-point Gamecock cushion at the half, spurred by an 11-0 run to end it, was more than enough room for USC (31-1) to start the party planning.
“Our players haven’t played their best basketball over the past few weeks,” Staley said. “So I think it was a combination of us finally feeling like we felt maybe in the beginning of the season, or the middle of the season, on both sides of the ball.”
Their offense beginning to click as it did against Kentucky in the semifinals, USC began to come at MSU in swarms. Wilson and Mitchell each had 19 points while Sessions had 11 and Bianca Cuevas had seven.
Nobody else from MSU was in double figures. “They can just hit you with so many different weapons,” coach Vic Schaefer said.
All of them were at peak efficiency in Jacksonville, and they’re anxious to keep them in working order through the break. USC won’t know its NCAA opponents and destination until March 14, but as win-or-go-home season approaches, the Gamecocks are ready to work.
After a small, but well-deserved, party.
“It means that our players have put in the work to be amongst the top teams in this conference,” Staley said. “Hopefully we can continue.”
William hit a putback jumper to make it 22-21 USC with 5:38 to go in the first half and the Gamecocks were starting to sputter. Asia Dozier missed a 3-pointer, but immediately erased the mistake by plucking Vivians’ pocket for the ball.
Dozier’s missed layup became a Coates stick-back, Sessions stole the ball from William and was fouled and USC embarked on an 11-0 run to end the half.
Star of the game: Sessions, as she did against Kentucky, was leading the defense throughout, hounding William and the Bulldogs’ other perimeter players and diving for every loose ball. She was credited with two steals and four rebounds; if they counted floor burns as stats, she’d have won MVP.
Play of the game: Mitchell’s steal-and-score bucket, with a reverse layup over the lunging Vivians, put a seal on the win.
Stat of the game: The Gamecocks had 36 points in the paint as the Bulldogs couldn’t contain Wilson and Coates.
FROM THE BASELINE
Bluegrass: We won’t know for seven days, but USC should have the No. 1 seed in the Lexington Regional. The Gamecocks, who have been the NCAA’s No. 2 seed the past two weeks, went unbeaten in the SEC and beat 13 Top 25 opponents. Notre Dame, also battling for that Lexington spot, went unbeaten through the ACC but didn’t play that kind of competition.
Reflection: Staley put it best.
“It also means they’re upholding what the players that have come before them did. Both when we were 10-18 to us winning the regular season and the tournament championship last year.”
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No. 3 SOUTH CAROLINA 66, No. 16 MISSISSIPPI ST. 52
MISSISSIPPI ST. (26-7)
Dillingham 3-6 0-0 6, William 4-8 1-2 9, Chapel 0-6 0-0 0, Vivians 9-18 4-4 26, Okorie 2-6 2-4 6, Richardson 0-3 2-2 2, McCowan 0-0 0-0 0, Nevitt 0-0 0-0 0, Salter 1-3 0-0 3. Totals 19-50 9-12 52.
SOUTH CAROLINA (31-1)
Sessions 4-6 2-4 11, Wilson 6-13 7-8 19, Mitchell 7-15 3-4 19, Dozier 1-6 2-2 4, Coates 2-5 0-0 4, Cuevas 2-6 2-2 7, Cliney 0-0 0-0 0, Roy 0-1 0-0 0, Imovbioh 0-0 0-0 0, White 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 23-53 16-20 66.
3-Point Goals—Mississippi St. 5-13 (Vivians 4-9, Salter 1-2, Richardson 0-1, Dillingham 0-1), South Carolina 4-11 (Mitchell 2-5, Sessions 1-1, Cuevas 1-2, Roy 0-1, Dozier 0-2). Fouled Out—Richardson. Rebounds—Mississippi St. 28 (Okorie, Vivians 8), South Carolina 37 (Wilson 13). Assists—Mississippi St. 9 (William 6), South Carolina 9 (Mitchell 5). Total Fouls—Mississippi St. 18, South Carolina 14. A—NA.
Diamond DeShields, Tennessee
Makayla Epps, Kentucky
Tiffany Mitchell, South Carolina
Victoria Vivians, Mississippi State
A’ja Wilson, South Carolina
MVP: Tiffany Mitchell, South Carolina