The legs were a little too rested.
Fifteenth-ranked South Carolina overcame a sloppy start coming off its bye week to win its fifth straight game on Sunday, 59-51 over Auburn. The Gamecocks (19-3, 7-2 SEC) improved to 7-2 in the league for the first time since 2001-02 and started the second half of league play with a win.
"We just had to take a look at their defense and read them," said guard Tiffany Mitchell, who scored 10 points. "We started to get lackadaisical with our passes. We tried to go east and west instead of north and south."
A back-and-forth game early got under USC control when Wilka Montout stroked a 3-pointer to open a six-point lead. The Gamecocks took a 28-22 advantage into the locker room, then survived a brief Auburn run in the second half due to freshman Khadijah Sessions.
The rookie had a career-high 19 points, picking off passes and racing downcourt with aplomb. She had three assists and aced 8-of-9 free throws to lock down the win, which helped ease the pressure off a post defense that didn't play that well.
"Like coach (Dawn) Staley always said, when your number's called, be ready," Sessions said. "It's a critical point in the season. I'm just trying to step up for my teammates."
Tyrese Tanner and Tra'cee Tanner bulled inside for a combined 20 points, using their superior bulk to push USC's defense around. The Gamecocks countered by forcing 16 turnovers (nine steals) and scoring 15 points off them.
Sessions was the key to that. With USC leading 52-49 with 90 seconds to play, Auburn missed a shot and the rebound was jarred to Sessions. She took off, being fouled on the shot, and made one free throw to give the Gamecocks some room.
"Each game, she's growing confidence," Staley said. "We knew when she decided to come to play, she would be a special player. I'm really happy for her because I've watched her sit back, and she didn't play much in some games. When we called her number in Florida, she's been playing well ever since."
Sessions, the future at point guard, is coming into her own game by game. With a take-over scoring style, her presence is becoming valuable to an offense that has had its problems.
"I just try to do what I'm capable of doing," Sessions said. "Scoring within myself and her offense."
The win was nice, and the news in the locker room after the game was nicer. The Gamecocks need to win and get a little bit of help in order to clinch a top-four league finish, and received both on Sunday.
Missouri, which lost by 45 points to Tennessee in the first round of league play, upended the Lady Volunteers 80-63 for UT's first SEC loss. Georgia beat Kentucky to create a three-way tie for third place, with the Lady Bulldogs, Wildcats and Gamecocks all 7-2 (Texas A&M, also 7-1 in the league, plays on Monday).
If the SEC tournament began today, the Gamecocks would have the first two days off by virtue of a top-four finish, earned by a tiebreaker over Kentucky. There are still seven games to play, but USC got some of the aid it needed in order to keep chasing a top-four finish - and perhaps even have a shot at a No. 1 finish.
"We just keep trying to control what we can control," Staley said. "That's to keep winning basketball games. Those two teams (Georgia and Tennessee), we lose tiebreakers to. We look at it like that as well. We still control our own destiny."
Sessions pointed out that Sunday is just an example of the league's parity.
"We just got to keep looking forward," Sessions said. "We can't settle on anything. I think we're capable of winning the SEC. The SEC title is up for grabs, and we're trying to go grab it."
NOTE: Staley has moved director of operations Cynthia Jordan to an assistant coaching role while assistant coach Nikki McCray is on maternity leave. McCray will return at some point this season, Staley saying she wouldn't be surprised to see her on the bench in a week.