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February 12, 2012
It's the seniors' responsibility. With the game on the line, the seniors have to take charge.
After throwing away a chance to bury Florida with 15 seconds to play, La'Keisha Sutton made up for it the only way she could - by finding a way to make another play, get another chance.
And deliver another win.
Sutton made the front end of a 1-and-1 with 1.4 seconds to go on Sunday to push No. 24 South Carolina ahead of Florida 62-58, which became the final margin as her second shot missed and the Gators' last-ditch heave fell well short. The team's co-captain had missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 15 seconds to go, then seen her inbound pass to Ieasia Walker get rolled out of bounds after Walker slipped, but put herself in position to be the hero one more time.
"I couldn't let that determine me from making the big play when my team needed me to," said Sutton, who scored nine and had four turnovers but was there when it counted. "I remembered I was a good free-throw shooter."
Florida inbounded from half-court with 11 seconds to play and Lily Svete immediately launched a 3-pointer. Lanita Bartley got the rebound but missed an inside shot, and as the scramble under the basket continued, Sutton found herself with the ball.
Immediately dribbling to the side of the court, Sutton was fouled. No way was she going to miss another chance to ice the game.
"We were going to let her get us the victory or the agony of defeat," coach Dawn Staley said. "Luckily, she made the basket."
The ball bounced in and the sizable Colonial Life Arena crowd erupted, a second half's worth of cheers pent up as the Gators (16-9, 6-6 SEC) refused to go away. USC, thanks to the hot shooting of Markeisha Grant and freshman Tina Roy, had leaped to a 10-point lead at halftime, but Florida locked down on defense, forced USC into a half-court game and began disrupting even the simplest of fundamentals - the inbound pass.
The lead was chipped and chipped until Deana Allen sunk a shot to tie the game at 54 with 6:24 to play. Yet USC (19-6, 8-4), with a chance to bolster its NCAA tournament position and set a new overall win total under Staley, didn't panic.
It simply did what it had to - turned to the seniors. After junior Ashley Bruner missed a shot, the Gamecocks fed the ball to their hottest shooter in the first half.
Grant, the senior, buried a 3-pointer for the lead and then watched Bruner rebound a miss and pass ahead to Sutton. Sutton drove, was fouled and made the two free throws for a five-point lead, although Florida wasn't done yet.
The Gamecocks nearly gave it back but Florida got no closer than 59-58. That was when Sutton again took the ball, drove the lane, met the resistance and somehow underhand flipped the ball off the glass and in.
"That was the play," Sutton said. "It was just to create separation and let me drive."
With the crowd cheering and just 34 seconds to go, the Gators traveled on the baseline inbound pass. While the Gamecocks didn't immediately take advantage, they did enough to win.
The seniors - Grant, Sutton and Charenee Stephens the main three - were grand. Grant led all scorers with 20 points, 16 in the first half. Stephens had just two points, but yanked seven rebounds and came up with a huge steal in the waning seconds. Sutton was Sutton, missing a chance for a big play but making up for it with a bigger play.
"For them, they want it more," Staley said of the group, which also features Courtney Newton and Ebony Wilson. "At this point, they've all been there before."
Staley again notched the tag of yearly improvement, as she has taken USC from 10 wins in her first season to 14, to 18 and now 19. Sunday's win also matched last year's SEC win total, and Staley still has four games to go to try and keep that on a constant improvement as well.
The Gamecocks are closing in on Staley's first NCAA tournament berth, but with No. 21 Georgia waiting on Thursday, and games left to play against No. 7 Kentucky and a red-hot Arkansas team that thrashed USC last week and has won eight straight games, nothing is given. Staley loves the progress, but realizes nothing is clinched yet - especially after being close in the last two Februarys but not getting there.
"Honestly, I thought we'd be further along than we are," Staley said. "I had to exert some patience. But we've learned how to win. That wasn't always the case."
NOTES: Florida wore all-pink uniforms in the "Play 4Kay" promotion, honoring late NC State coach Kay Yow. USC wore pink warm-up shirts, headbands, socks, shoelaces and other assorted accessories. The officials wore pink whistles. Freshman Aleighsa Welch started her first career game. Bruner had started while Newton was out with a concussion, but Newton started in the loss at Arkansas. The win pushed USC into a three-way tie for third place with Arkansas and Georgia. Tennessee, in second by a half-game, plays Kentucky on Monday. If the Lady Volunteers lose, it will create a four-way tie with four games to play. The top four teams in the SEC receive byes in the SEC tournament, and will probably be considered locks for the NCAA tournament.
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