South Carolina (20-2, 8-1) moved into first place in the SEC and notched its third straight 20-win season with a 78-62 win over Missouri (14-8, 3-6) Sunday afternoon.
Missouri kept the game close through much of the first half, and trailed 23-17 with eight minutes left in the half. Then, as they have done so many times this season, the Gamecocks caught fire to take a big lead into the locker room. Over that final eight minutes, the Gamecocks outscored the Tigers 25-8.
The run was built on the back of tough defense and unexpectedly good free throw shooting. The Gamecocks got into the bonus early and took advantage, aggressively going after every loose ball. They also made the most of their trips to the line. They shot 14-19 for the half, compared to 2-2 for the Tigers. They also protected the ball, committing just three turnovers for the half.
"We wanted to stay in all plays and make sure we're contesting all their shots," said head coach Dawn Staley.
Despite trailing by 23 at the break, Missouri did not fold. The Tigers went on a 14-5 run early in the half by forcing the Gamecocks into turnovers and converting them into points. In the first seven minutes of the half, South Carolina committed six turnovers. Missouri turned those into 11 points to cut the lead to 13. Staley thought the Gamecocks came out of the break tired and had to fight through the fatigue, but the experience from the aggressive first half paid off.
"When (Missouri) got going, having to play exhausted basketball in the first half helped us hold on to get this win," she said.
The Gamecocks quickly answered with a 9-0 run that effectively sealed the win. Alaina Coates made a short basket to start the run. Aleighsa Welch rebounded her own miss and Tiffany Mitchell buried an open three. Mitchell followed with a midcourt steal and the layup, and Welch capped the run with a jumper.
Missouri refused to fold, and South Carolina did its part to help Missouri stay in the game. The hot free throw shooting from the first half turned miserable. The Gamecocks made only 11 of 27 free throw attempts, or 40.7 percent.
Mitchell led a balanced scoring effort for the Gamecocks. She had 20 points and nine rebounds, team highs. Coates and Khadijah Sessions had 13, Welch and Asia Dozier had 11, and Elem Ibiam had 10. Coates finished with four blocks Ibiam had 3.
Sessions was particularly impressive. She scored in double figures for the second straight game, the first times she has scored in double figures since missing five games with an ankle injury. She also had six assists and four steals, and played excellent defense for the entire game. Staley said the key to Sessions' resurgence was being benched against Alabama four games ago.
"It put something under her to come out and play like she was before the injury," Staley said. "Now she's pressuring the ball, she's quarterbacking both side of the ball for us and she's allowing us to play five on five instead of four on five because she wasn't looking to score."
The win, plus a loss by Texas A&M, moved the Gamecocks into sole possession of first place in the SEC. Vanderbilt's Morgan Batey made two free throws with 2.2 seconds left in regulation to upset the Aggies 71-69. That made the Aggies 7-2 in league play, one game behind the Gamecocks. The Aggies do hold the head-to-head tiebreaker courtesy of their 67-65 win over the Gamecocks in College Station. South Carolina is also the first team in the SEC to reach 20 wins.
Notes: The Gamecocks' 8-1 conference start ties the 1987-88 Metro Conference squad for the best conference start in program history... Attendance was a season-high 7,828... In the crowd was the nation's top-ranked recruit, A'ja Wilson. USC put on a show for Wilson, including a student-made big head... Last season, Missouri had a 34-14 edge in points in the paint and won. This season, South Carolina had a 36-16 edge and won... Outside of the six turnovers and 11 points off committed during Missouri's run to open the second half, the Gamecocks had only five turnovers and gave up eight points off.