MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - No. 10 South Carolina lost its first game of the season Wednesday night to No. 14 North Carolina at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, 74-66, despite a furious comeback in the second half. Junior forward Aleighsa Welch scored a career-high 23 points on the night, but the Tar Heels won the battle of the boards 43-33, including turning 16 offensive boards into 18 second-chance points.
The Gamecocks were the early aggressors, but the Tar Heels fought back, getting in front and then stretching the lead to 39-27 at halftime. South Carolina got want it wanted early, going inside to Elem Ibiam and letting Welch use her athleticism to get inside shots.
The two combined with the game-opening bucket from Tiffany Mitchell to grab a 10-6 lead five minutes into the game. North Carolina's Allisha Gray hit a 3 in between two Ibiam baskets to cut narrowly into the lead. The Tar Heels then turned a Gamecock turnover and a offensive rebound on a missed free throw into a 6-0 run that lasted just 40 seconds and gave them a 15-12 advantage.
The Gamecocks began to struggle from the free throw line and on the glass, while the young Tar Heels gained confidence and speed to take advantage of the Gamecocks' centers on the offensive end. The combination led to the Gamecocks' first halftime deficit of the season despite 12 points from Ibiam and 11 from Welch in the opening period.
The second half opened much like the first with the Gamecocks scoring six straight points - Welch in the lane and a drive and two free throws from Mitchell to pull within six. The Tar Heels found their footing and pushed their lead out to 46-33 with 16:01 to play.
South Carolina launched its 14-3 run from their, holding the Tar Heels to just one basket - a 3 pointer - over the next five minutes of play. The defense forced five turnovers in the run, and the Gamecocks made the Tar Heels pay for each of them. Welch hit a bucket in the lane, and Khadijah Sessions drove for another bucket to pull within nine at 46-37. Mitchell hit a pair of free throws, but North Carolina's Xylina McDaniel drained one of her two timely 3-pointers to stem the tide. South Carolina went right back to work, hawking the ball from baseline to baseline as Olivia Gaines came in to give a different defensive look to the Gamecocks' pressure.
Her pull-up jumper launched another 8-0 surge as it was followed by a right hook from Ibiam and baskets in the paint from Welch and Mitchell, who was aggressive all through the second half, made it a 49-47 game with 11:33 to play.
North Carolina called a timeout to regroup, and McDaniel hit another 3-pointer out of that break. South Carolina drew within two twice more over the next two minutes, but the Tar Heels found points when they needed them. After Welch's free throws made it a 55-53 game with 9:21 to play, North Carolina got back-to-back layups to again stretch out their advantage. As the Gamecocks left a few points at the free throw line down the stretch, North Carolina held on for the win.
The Gamecocks shot 41.1 percent from the field, but hit just 1-of-11 from beyond the arc. After a first half that saw just three Gamecocks hit a field goal, scoring came from a variety of sources in the second half, during which South Carolina hit 46.2 percent from the field. Mitchell finished with 18 points, while Ibiam added 14, hitting 7-of-10 from the field.
Welch led South Carolina on the glass with six rebounds, including five offensive, while Ibiam added five to go with four blocked shots.
South Carolina is back in action twice before taking a short break for the holiday. The Gamecocks host Winthrop on Fri., Dec. 20, at noon, and South Carolina State on Sun., Dec. 22, at 1 p.m.