No. 6 South Carolina survived a hard fought game against Arkansas (16-8, 3-8 SEC) to win 67-49 and sweep the season series. The win keeps the Gamecocks (22-2, 10-1) in first place in the conference.
Both teams were sluggish to start the game, and Dawn Staley called a timeout just three minutes into the game to try to light a fire. Not much changed and the Gamecocks led 17-10 midway through the half. The Razorbacks succeeded in harassing the Gamecock post players and disrupting the flow of the offense.
"I think we did disrupt them a little bit," Arkansas head coach Tom Collen said. "I don't think there's a lot of teams in the country that have got that low-post presence like they do."
Staley agreed with the assessment, saying there were times when frustration hurt the Gamecocks.
"I thought the bigs were a little frustrated today," Staley said. "(Arkansas) tied them up and collapsed on us a lot. They stayed committed to it all game long."
USC continued to go inside, and as they have done so often this season, that was when the Gamecocks went on a big run. Alaina Coates put back her own miss, and then Khadijah Sessions was fouled on a 3-point attempt, making all three free throws. Elem Ibiam put in a short jumper, and Tina Roy capped off the run with a three-pointer from the top of the key. Jessica Jackson finally ended the 10-0 run with a pair of free throws for Arkansas, but all told the Razorbacks went six minutes without a field goal.
That run was basically the difference throughout the second half, as the teams traded runs. Arkansas opened the second half on a 9-4 run to close within 10 points, but South Carolina answered with eight straight over the next 90 seconds to regain control. The Razorbacks had one more 6-0 run in them, but they never seriously threatened again. The Gamecocks would stretch the lead to as much as 21 in garbage time.
Arkansas clamped down on defense in the second half, holding South Carolina to 34 percent shooting in the second half and forcing 19 turnovers for the game. The Gamecocks held onto their lead by making free throws. They hit their first 16 from the stripe and missed only four of their 26 attempts for the game.
Aleighsa Welch led all scorers with 16 points to go along with 7 rebounds. Tiffany Mitchell had 15 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists, and Ibiam and Coates both had 10 points.
The matchup between Coates and Jackson, the favorites to win SEC Freshman of the Year, never really materialized. Jackson had eight points but shot 1-for-12 from the field with six rebounds and four fouls. Coates had 8 rebounds to go with her 10 points, but also had seven turnovers and no blocks and frequently looked tired.
Staley said Coates is becoming the focal point of opposing defenses, and she has to learn how to handle that attention, which on Sunday included an inadvertent shot to the face that had Coates wincing.
"The novelty is wearing off and people realize what she brings to the table," Staley said. "She's got to get used to it. We talked a lot on the bench (about) looking and watching what the defense is doing against El and against Aleighsa so when so goes back in the game she can make adjustments."
"I like a big girl to play mad," Staley added. "I really do."
Keira Peak and Calli Berna led Arkansas with nine points each. Peak scored all of her points in the first half, and the Razorbacks did not get a score from someone other than Peak until the 10:26 mark of the first half.
Also on Sunday, Texas A&M edged LSU 72-65. That means South Carolina holds its 1.5 game lead over Texas A&M and idle Tennessee in the conference standings. Texas A&M holds the tiebreaker over South Carolina, and the Gamecocks and Vols meet in the final game of the season. LSU, who hosts the Gamecocks next Sunday, is most likely out of the conference championship race at 7-4. With only five games remaining, Staley admitted she is starting to think about title prospects.
"We're not going to do that in front of our team, (but) of course we do," she said. "We're jockeying for position. They way you look at it is if we continue to do what we've done all season long that stuff will take care of itself."
Notes: Announced attendance was 7,545. It was the third straight Sunday afternoon game with attendance over 7,000... The Gamecocks are off on Thursday. Their final stretch of games begins next Sunday at LSU. Ibiam added two blocks to her single-season school record. She now has 65... Welch had a career-high five blocks. She had four blocks in the first game at Arkansas, tying her then career-high... Arkansas held South Carolina to 43 percent shooting for the game, six percentage points below the season average... Collen said he thinks South Carolina is a Final Four-caliber team. "I'm going to be pulling for (USC) to go all the way to the Final Four and represent the SEC." He also thanked the fans and media for the high turnout, saying it was good for women's basketball.