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February 16, 2012

Opportunity slips away against Georgia



VIDEO: La'Keisha Sutton, Markeisha Grant


VIDEO: Dawn Staley


The game of inches cost No. 25 South Carolina, and No. 18 Georgia had all the room it needed to escape.

Ieasia's Walker attempt at a game-winning 3-pointer glanced off the front rim and USC lost 61-59 to the Bulldogs on Thursday, ending a contest where each team ran back and forth and never seemed to find a constant answer. The Bulldogs (20-7, 9-4 SEC) weathered a barrage of first-half USC 3-pointers to claw within two points at halftime, then took control with their relentless inside game and pinpoint shooting.

The Gamecocks finally figured out what they wanted to run on offense in the game's final five minutes and charged back from five down with less than 83 seconds to play until Walker, quiet in the first half, got another chance. Standing at the line following a Georgia timeout, Walker calmly stroked a free throw to tie the game at 59 with 12.1 seconds remaining.

Georgia inbounded and ran downcourt, until Anne Marie Armstrong got inside the arc and rose for a jumper. Sancheon White seemed to cleanly block the shot, but it was called for a foul; Armstrong sank two free throws for the game-clinching score and Walker's last shot was just off the mark.

It mimicked a call when Meredith Mitchell was also cleanly blocked (replays confirmed) but a foul was called, and the one made free throw gave the Bulldogs a 59-55 lead. In a game where constant contact under the basket was allowed, USC lost on two shots that it knew it didn't hinder.

Not that they were thinking about it.

"I didn't see it," coach Dawn Staley said after a pause and a brief laugh. "But we had a foul to give. It shouldn't have come to that situation."

"We thought it was clean," Walker said, after she and La'Keisha Sutton looked at each other and each smiled. "But the refs called a foul."

Sutton, who led all scorers with 20 points, then pointed out that the one call didn't cost USC the game. She had a point - the Bulldogs were allowed to whatever they wanted to on offense and shot 50 percent from the field, when the Gamecocks have lived on their defense all season. It was also too much confusion from USC when it had the ball - it began by shooting 3-pointers, over half its field-goal attempts in the first half from 3, then tried to go inside against a team with superior height, often at the expense of passing up an open look from 3.

It all added up to a sour night, one that increased in tartness after the game was over. The Gamecocks came into the game knowing that they were in prime position to challenge for the SEC regular-season title, as long as they won and got some help.

The help arrived when Alabama shocked league-leading Kentucky 77-75, and LSU gave Arkansas its first loss in nine games. Tennessee was at Mississippi State late Thursday and with a win, would tie the Wildcats for first place with three games to play.

Had USC won, it would have been within a game of first place in the SEC, with a tiebreaker over Tennessee, while Arkansas and Georgia slipped behind. Instead, USC is in a three-way-tie for fourth place with LSU and Arkansas, and lost to each team.

"It will be hard for us to get anything accomplished tomorrow," Staley said. "But we've got to get back to work."

The Gamecocks ran off nine straight points to start the game, all on 3-pointers. Georgia began forcing its way inside, though, and USC couldn't stop it. Jasmine Hassell had 18 points by simply weaving around or backing into Charenee Stephens and Aleighsa Welch.

The foul trouble began to mount, but only late, and USC left five points on the line. Four of Georgia's starters played the entire game and Hassell was the only one who fouled out.

The Gamecocks leaned on Sutton to do everything, and she almost did, but didn't get enough help when she needed it. Markeisha Grant was near-silent after nine points in the first half, and Walker missed her first 10 shots before heating up and finishing with nine points.

Still, USC was right there, and two to three inches from victory. The two called fouls, and Walker's missed 3, sent the Gamecocks home knowing they could have had one, and now knowing they'll have to go face the same Alabama team that just beat Kentucky on the road.

"It wasn't by design to not shoot the 3 (in the second half)," Staley said. "Maybe we played Markeisha a bit too much. She didn't shoot as freely as she usually does.

"But we still control our own destiny."

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