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March 1, 2012
VIDEO: Ieasia Walker
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Considering how ugly South Carolina's history in the SEC tournament has been, the No. 25 Gamecocks were willing to deal with an ugly tournament opener on Thursday.
There's nothing ugly about a win, especially the program's mere fifth in 21 years.
"Any time you can get a win, looking at our history, it's always a great thing," coach Dawn Staley said after USC beat Alabama 57-38 in the last game of the tournament's first round. "We just continue to build our resume, as far as the NCAA (tournament)."
USC beat the Crimson Tide for the third time this season and improved to 22-8, also advancing to just its sixth tournament quarterfinal in its SEC history. The sixth-seeded Gamecocks will play third-seed Georgia at 10 p.m. on Friday, attempting to advance to their first SEC tournament semifinal.
The Gamecocks got there by weathering an early Alabama charge, with the help of a new friend. USC ended the season with the nation's worst free-throw percentage (57.4, the lowest among 336 teams), yet hit eight straight free throws in the first half to get itself off a 10-10 tie.
Aided by the unexpected boost, USC re-asserted itself on defense. The Crimson Tide couldn't hold onto the ball as the Gamecocks' guards swiped and produced fast break after fast break, breaking a close game open with a 16-0 run.
Alabama (12-19) ended its season with a whimper, throwing the ball away 22 times and becoming the first SEC team to lose to the Gamecocks three times in one season. USC wasn't overjoyed with its performance, but realized that it did accomplish what it wanted most - winning.
"We got ourselves in a position where we'll have to win four in a row," Staley said. "Fortunately for us, we got out to a big lead where we could rest some players."
Now for the Bulldogs, which beat the Gamecocks 61-59 two weeks ago when Anne Marie Armstrong drilled a 15-footer with less than five seconds to go and Ieasia Walker's last-second 3-pointer hit front rim and fell away. Georgia was idle on Thursday with a first-round bye and like USC, doesn't need to win to cement its NCAA tournament bid - but like USC, wants to win to show it can win a championship before competing for another.
Sutton scored the Gamecocks' first four points and seven of their first nine, but slipped into a trend of trying to do too much as field goals became a premium. Sutton threw up shots in traffic as she and her teammates went nearly 10 full minutes without a field goal, but she hit two free throws to give USC a 12-10 lead after Alabama had tied the game.
"She's playing like she's been here before, and she has, for the last four years," Staley said. "She's certainly the calm amongst the storm. We felt comfortable putting the ball in her hands."
That became six straight points from Markeisha Grant as USC never let Alabama get comfortable to shoot. The Gamecocks' guards, as they have throughout the second half of the season, put the opponent away and freshman Tina Roy stuck in a couple of other nails with two 3-pointers in the final 90 seconds of the half.
On cruise control in the second half, USC was never threatened. The Gamecocks didn't shoot much better but Alabama was as frigid as the normal ice-covered surface of Bridgestone Arena. The Tide shot a poor 26.4 percent for the game and every advantage it gained usually ended out of bounds on a bad pass or tip off the body.
USC held Alabama to its season-low in points and yielded the lowest amount of points to any opponent this season.
Meanwhile, USC got to empty the bench. Walk-on Imani Sellers scored six points, three less than she had all year coming into the game, and defensive specialist Ebony Wilson had two. Sutton ended with 15 to lead the team while Grant had 10. Roy had seven.
So complete was the defensive domination that Walker, USC's point guard, didn't score and the Gamecocks still won by 19 points. USC only hit three 3-pointers but scored 21 points off Alabama turnovers, and 24 points in the paint.
"As long as we get the win, that's my main concern," said Walker, who was 0-for-6. "We know we can allow our defense to get some stops, but we need to hit shots. Tomorrow, hopefully, they'll be falling."
USC also made it 11 straight free throws in a stretch, part of 18-of-24 for the game. That by itself was cause for celebration.
"We've been on the other side of percentages and it isn't very good," Staley said. "We don't jinx ourselves, we just kind of let the game, let it flow. It's good that we had our best free-throw shooter, La'Keisha, shoot the majority of them."
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