The NO. 13 South Carolina women's basketball team improved to 2-0 in conference play Sunday, 14-1 overall, defeating Vanderbilt 76-66 in the SEC home opener.
The Gamecocks (14-1) used solid runs on both sides of the halftime break to build a 17 point lead, and then held on behind clutch free throw shooting. Free throws have been a sore spot all season. The Gamecocks have shot just 63.8 percent from the line on the season. But against the Commodores (12-3, 1-1), they shot 22-27 (81.5 percent) for the game and a sterling 14-17 in the second half.
It was a marked contrast to the conference opener against Arkansas, when the Razorbacks nearly came back to win because the Gamecocks shot 10-17 in the second half. Head coach Dawn Staley said they have not worked on free throw shooting in practice, but that the players have taken it upon themselves to get better.
"We're known to be a poor free throw shooting team so we put more emphasis on it," said Tiffany Mitchell, who scored 19 points. "We just take our time and knock them down."
South Carolina finished the first half on a 10-3 run that pushed the lead into double figures as time expired. Freshman Alaina Coates forced a turnover on defense and then rebounded Tiffany Mitchell's missed jumper for the putback as time expired. The basket gave South Carolina a 41-30 lead going into halftime, and they didn't let up after the break.
Vanderbilt went with the full court press in the second half. South Carolina was caught off guard and surrendered a quick 5-0 run, but then adjusted to the press and ran off a 9-0 run to stretch the lead to 17 at 52-35. All four baskets during the run were layups by off assists, plus an and one free throw by Tiffany Davis, that came in transition or from breaking the press. A different player scored each basket.
Outside of that run, South Carolina's offensive game plan was to exploit Vanderbilt's lack of size. Vanderbilt only has one player over 6-1, Kendall Shaw, and she is out with a knee injury. Coates and Elem Ibiam were able to easily go over defenders for layups and short jumpers. Along with Aleighsa Welch, they also operated a high-low game that created space in the lane. All three did a good job of running the court and getting set on offense before Vanderbilt could get set defensively.
"We felt like our bigs would be able to get great looks in the paint," Staley said. "We wanted to pound it in there as much as possible and let them do their thing."
Coates finished with a career-high 24 points, and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds to record her third consecutive double-double. Coates has emerged as a force after a mid-December swoon that saw her barely make an impact.
"She's got to perform for us," Staley said. "She's practicing better, and when you practice better you're going to get these kind of performances in games."
Coates excelled at catching the ball high and keeping it high, maintaining the 6-4 center's size advantage. She scored the bulk of South Carolina's 42 points in the paint.
"We knew they were going to be physical, so we had to be prepared to hit first and be ready at all times," Coates said. "Our guards are able to give us a good pass."
The Commodores refused to fade, and eventually got the deficit back into single digits with 7:18 to play. With both Welch and Ibiam saddled with four fouls Coates was the only post player in the game and the Commodores were able to easily collapse on her, negating the size disadvantage. The Gamecocks slowed the game to protect the lead and bleed clock until Staley could go back to her preferred lineup.
Coates scored a pair of baskets to put South Carolina back up by 12, and Welch was able to consistently break Vanderbilt's press and make free throws.
Vanderbilt's leading scorer was Christina Foggie with 16. After being held to two points in the first half, she recovered to finish two shy of her season average. Vanderbilt actually had more second chance points than Carolina. As a jump shooting team, Vanderbilt misses produced a lot of long rebounds that the Commodores were able to scramble for, negating the Gamecocks' size advantage.
The Gamecocks' "Drive for 5," the push to average 5,000 fans per home game, fell just short Sunday. Attendance was announced as 4,810 ... Mitchell's right wrist was wrapped in ice after the game. She has had a sore wrist for a couple of weeks, but it hasn't affected her play ... The officials called 45 fouls in the game, many of which were questionable. In the first half the Gamecocks seemed distracted by the officiating... Mitchell and Staley were both called for technical fouls ... Staley was rung up for arguing with an official over a non call. Staley said of the technical, "It's hot in the kitchen, so maybe I said something to tick (the official) off." ... Mitchell was whistled for taunting after drawing a foul. She said thought her comments were merely in the "spirit of the game." ... Vanderbilt actually shot better on free throws than USC, hitting 14-15... The Gamecocks return to action on Thursday for what will likely be the biggest home game of the season against No. 6 Kentucky, one of the favorites to win the SEC. The game will not be televised.