No. 4 South Carolina (26-2, 14-1 SEC) made its first SEC Championship an outright title with a 67-56 win over Georgia (18-10, 6-9) Thursday night.
For the second game in a row, the second-largest crowd in Colonial Life Arena history came out to watch the Gamecocks make history. Sunday afternoon, the crowd of 10,547 saw the Gamecocks clinch a share of the SEC regular season championship with a win over Florida. Two thousand more fans came out Thursday night to watch the Gamecocks clinch the title outright.
As soon as the game ended, a table was wheeled out to midcourt. Under a garnet cloth was the SEC championship trophy. Introduced by athletics director Ray Tanner, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive presented the Gamecocks with the trophy.
About 45 minutes after the game ended, head coach Dawn Staley entered the media room wearing her brand-new SEC Champions t-shirt. She was still in a bit of a daze as she answered questions.
"You work so hard to accomplish this, you tend not to think about how you're supposed to act," Staley said. "It seems so surreal."
"We took care of business, and I'm glad we did it in front of almost 12,500 fans," she said.
The game itself was closer than might have been expected going in. The Gamecocks led by a comfortable margin most of the game, but could never shake the Bulldogs.
South Carolina scored the first six points of the game and ran out to a quick 12-2 lead. Georgia scored the next five, and the game went from feeling like a massacre in the making to a back and forth battle. South Carolina's offense became stagnant, allowing Georgia back in the game. Then Elem Ibiam replaced Wilka Montout in the lineup and the offensive ball movement took off. South Carolina went on a 12-1 run over five and a half minutes to go ahead 24-8.
The poor offensive execution resurfaced towards the end of the half, and the Gamecocks led by 12 at the half. Georgia opened the second half with a three-pointer to cut the lead to single digits, and that would be the working margin for the rest of the game. Mitchell finished with a career-high 25, but every time she made a big basket to stretch the Gamecock lead a little, Georgia had an answer.
"Tiffany Mitchell has been a player that any time we needed a basket or a stop, she came through for us," Staley said. "I thought she took advantage of what the defense gave her."
Georgia managed to hang around in large part because one of South Carolina's normal strengths became a weakness. Georgia shot only 32.8 percent from the floor, but hauled in 19 offensive rebounds. Coming into the game, South Carolina was averaging ten more rebounds than its opponents, but Thursday night the margin was zero, with both teams getting 38 rebounds.
Alaina Coates picked up two fouls in under a minute in the first half, and she later returned for another three minutes of action before picking up her third foul after contributing just four points and one rebound. In the second half, she became a force. Coates finished with 18 points and 8 rebounds, and made eight of her ten free throw attempts.
If rebounding could have cost South Carolina the game, free throws won it. The Gamecocks attempted 38 free throws (Georgia tried 16), and made 30 of them (78.9 percent). In addition to Coates' efficient shooting, Mitchell was a perfect 10-10 from the stripe.
Official attendance was 12,458. The highest attendance for a women's basketball game at Colonial Life Arena came in the first game in the arena in 2002, when 17,712 watched South Carolina play Clemson... In the second half during a scramble for a loose ball, there was a brief shoving match. Aleighsa Welch and Kaelyn Causwell both received technical fouls for their roles... Coates still needs one more double-double to tie Kelsey Bone's freshman record of nine double-doubles... Turnovers are a concern for USC right now. In its last three games, it has committed 16, 18, and 17 turnovers... Erika Ford had 16 points for Georgia, and Shacobia Barbee had 15... Senior Montout was recognized before the game and got her first career start. She finished with two rebounds and two blocks in 15 minutes of action... Staley campaigned for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament saying, "I think if you are the top team in the SEC it speaks volumes throughout the rest of the country."... The Gamecocks travel to face Tennessee on Sunday in the regular season finale. Then the Gamecocks receive a double bye in the SEC Tournament. Their first game will be at noon on March 7.
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