VIDEO: Dawn Staley, Aleighsa Welch
Yes, it was a win, but it wasn't what Dawn Staley wanted to see. This is the key stretch of the season, when No. 15 South Carolina wants to be playing its best.
For 20 minutes on Sunday against Mississippi State in what became a 58-43 win, the Gamecocks did. The other 20?
"The rust was off the way we started the game, then we came out the second half not so energetic," Staley said. "The halftime really hurt us more than anything. The way we were playing, we could have easily opened the game up."
A first half where the Gamecocks could do no wrong turned into a sputtering, turnover-marred mess in the second half as USC let the Bulldogs back into the game. The Gamecocks hit just enough shots where they didn't have to panic - the closest MSU (12-15, 4-10 SEC) got was nine points - but Staley wasn't pleased with how a 36-20 domination in the first half became a nearly even contest in the second.
The Gamecocks (22-5, 10-4) have two more regular-season games, then the SEC tournament. They'll get a break after that before the NCAA tournament, but they still want to be playing at their best right now, especially after a bye week.
Sunday was half their best.
"I think it was just us not coming out with that same energy," said forward Aleighsa Welch, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds. "We weren't executing the way we did in the first half. We weren't playing the defense we played in the first half. They capitalized on every one of our mistakes. I think that's one thing we're really going to have to work on."
USC leaped to a 12-0 lead in the first four minutes when Mississippi State had eight possessions without a shot attempt. The Gamecocks had their hands on every loose ball, recording 12 first-half steals, and had the record watch going - the single-game high under Staley is 21.
Khadijah Sessions, who started for the second straight game, was again supplying terrific play and Welch was handling the inside game. USC flexed its muscle and the Bulldogs wilted, unable to come up with any consistent offense and playing so badly that coach Vic Schaefer was given a technical, the officials thinking he was screaming at them when he was screaming at his team.
But after the half, MSU was the team playing like it was ahead 16. Seven straight points combined with six USC turnovers, two points and three shot attempts had the game at 38-29.
The Gamecocks woke up, spurred by more Welch and 11 points each from Sessions and Elem Ibiam, but it wasn't comfortable until the final four minutes. USC only got two more steals and only forced four more turnovers after the first-half brilliance, and was out-scored by one point in the second half.
"I thought we were trying to make the most difficult pass on the floor," Staley said. "I thought we were trying to force things that weren't there."
USC did win, though, and matched the program's highest SEC win total (10), also set in 2001-02 and tied last season. The Gamecocks will be at Missouri on Thursday and host Florida in one week to try and beat the mark, which will also feed into Staley's other streak. She has improved her overall and SEC win totals in every year that she has been at USC, and stands at 22 wins with two regular-season games, plus two postseason games, to play after Saturday.
USC also clinched no worse than a fifth seed for the SEC tournament. The Gamecocks are one game out of a top-four finish, which would mean byes out of the first two days of the tournament, but split a series with fourth-place Kentucky and are a tiebreaker behind top seeds Tennessee, Texas A&M and Georgia.
Still, though, USC has a chance. The Gamecocks need major, major help, but they still have a mathematical chance. With the Gamecocks' offense looking good in spurts, led by Sessions, they're hoping to play as deep as they can, no matter what seed they get.
"I'm just trying to do what coach asks me to do, every game," Sessions said. "Playing my role, bringing energy, leadership, scoring, defending, doing whatever I can to help my team win."
NOTE: Asia Dozier didn't play the second half, but was on the bench. Staley said that Dozier has a back issue and that USC's training staff is looking at ways to make her more comfortable.