The Gamecocks (10-1) bounced back from their first loss of the season with a hard-fought 69-61 win over the Winthrop Eagles (6-3) Friday afternoon.
Playing without starting point guard Khadijah Sessions, South Carolina opened the game with a 14-0 run and led 20-3 after six-and-a-half minutes then had to cling to that advantage for the rest of the game. Winthrop played them evenly for the remainder of the first half, and then used a 10-0 run early in the second half to make it a tight game down the stretch. Head coach Dawn Staley placed blame for the comeback on the defensive end of the court.
"I knew this year would be a lot different from a defensive standpoint, and we're still trying to find our identity," Staley said. "They found areas and holes in our defense and made us pay for it."
Clinging to a four point lead with about six minutes remaining, Staley opted to run out the shot clock and shorten the game. Aleighsa Welch (14 points), Asia Dozier (13 points), and Tiffany Mitchell (game-high 20 points) all made key baskets down the stretch as the defense struggled to get stops. South Carolina was able to maintain the four point lead; the Eagles never got any closer, and got the most important stop of the game with 2:44 remaining. Winthrop's leading scorer, Dequesh McClanahan, who had 19 points and eight assists in the game, was called for a charge as she drove to the rim. It was the senior guard's fifth foul of the game, and with McClanahan relegated to the bench, the Eagles lost their offensive identity.
"She's our leader," Winthrop head coach Kevin Cook said. "That call could have gone either way. I wish she had been shooting free throws."
"The bottom line is we dug ourselves too big of a hole."
The Eagles were forced to foul to extend the game, but the Gamecocks made four of eight free throws down the stretch, just enough to protect the lead. After the game, Cook praised his team's effort, then let hindsight get the best of him.
"If we had the first seven minutes to play over again," he pleaded. "Could we do that?"
The Gamecocks seemed to wear down as the game progressed. They lost a tough game to No. 14 North Carolina in Myrtle Beach Wednesday night and then had to turn around and play again at noon Friday. It didn't help that with Sessions out, the other four starters had to log heavy minutes. Welch, ,Dozier, Mitchell and Elem Ibiam all logged at least 32 minutes.
Tiffany Davis started in Sessions' absence. She had three points and four rebounds in 26 minutes, but also had six turnovers. Staley blamed the turnover partly on fatigue due to the increased playing time for Davis.
"Part of it was a little mental fatigue, a little physical fatigue, but I'd rather coach a player that is going to get after it and be a dog," Staley said. "I'd rather coach her to slow down than speed up."
Staley expects Davis to start again in the Gamecocks' next game. The Gamecocks face another quick turnaround before they take a break for Christmas. They host South Carolina State on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Cook coached Ibiam on the Nigerian U-19 team. He complemented Ibiam on how much her game has improved since he coached her... Winthrop sophomore forward Pamela Decheva transferred from South Carolina following her freshman season. She scored eight points Friday. In her entire freshman season she scored just five points... Freshman Erica Williams also scored 19 points for the Eagles... South Carolina had 17 assists on 24 baskets... The Gamecocks shot 50 percent from the floor, but attempted 11 fewer shots than the Eagles, who shot 40 percent.