South Carolina (25-2, 13-1 SEC) clinched a share of the SEC Championship Sunday with a 69-55 win over Florida (17-10, 7-7).
Courtesy of Kentucky's win over Texas A&M, South Carolina now holds a two game lead over Texas A&M and Tennessee with two games to play. That guarantees the Gamecocks no worse than a share of the regular season championship, and if they beat Georgia on Thursday they clinch the title outright.
The team watched the end of the Texas A&M Kentucky game in the locker room. Head coach Dawn Staley was on the phone with a recruit when the buzzer sounded, and heard the celebration in the background. She described the mood as "elated."
"Our kids have worked extremely hard to get us in this position, not only the current ones but the former ones who got their heads beat in six years ago starting the building process," Staley said. "It feels great."
The Gamecocks did their part to clinch the title by beating Florida. The Gamecocks led Florida by as many as 16 midway through the second half, but the Gators countered with a quick 7-0 run. Kayla Lewis and Jaterra Bonds made layups, and then Antoinette Bannister banked in a three for the Gators, and the Gamecocks missed five consecutive shots during the stretch. The Gators would hang around about nine points back for the rest of the game, until the Gamecocks pulled away in the final minute.
The game began with runs by both teams. Florida started with a 7-0 run as South Carolina struggled to get anything going offensively. Tiffany Mitchell finally got South Carolina on the board with a pullup jumper, and South Carolina would score the game's next ten points. Florida went almost seven and a half minutes between scores, but the Gamecocks could not capitalize. They had 13 turnovers in the first half, most of them during that stretch.
"It was unforced turnovers that we made," said Mitchell, who had six turnovers in the first half. "We just didn't make the right decision at the right time."
Florida pressed South Carolina throughout the game, and while the press did not directly force a lot of turnovers, it got South Carolina out of its rhythm, sped up the game, and caused players to force passes. At halftime, Staley told her team to relax and take was Florida was giving them. In the second half, the Gamecocks committed just five turnovers.
"I basically told them to turn the page," Staley said. "Some of those turnovers I'll take because we're trying to get the ball down to our post players."
Toward the end of the half, South Carolina went on another run, one that would essentially hold up for the remainder of the game. Alaina Coates scored five points during an 11-1 run and South Carolina went into halftime leading 32-22. South Carolina's defense bailed out the offense in the first half, holding Florida to 25 percent shooting (8-32), blocking eight shots, and outrebounding Florida 25-14.
For the game, South Carolina held Florida to 32.2 percent shooting, had 11 blocks, and a 44-29 rebounding edge. The Gamecocks' old liability, free throw shooting, resurfaced as they shot 18-28, 64.3 percent from the line, and missed several front ends of one-and-ones. It was the lowest percentage in the last five games, and second lowest since the loss at Texas A&M.
Coates finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, her first double-double since the Ole Miss game, a span of five games. She also had five blocks.
After her shaky first half, Mitchell finished with 20 points, eight rebounds, and only one turnover in the second half. Staley called Mitchell's play in the first half "not up to par." Mitchell said she tried to settle down in the second half and take what Florida gave her.
"I think I was playing too fast early on," she said. "I tried to get into the flow of the game."
The game was South Carolina's Think Pink game, designated to recognize women who have battled or are battling breast cancer. The game held special meaning for the Gamecocks after assistant coach Nikki McCray was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier in the season. A crowd of 10,547 turned out for the game, the second largest crowd ever for a women's basketball game at Colonial Life Arena. While the team fed off the crowd most of the day, there were times when Staley thought they got too excited, especially point guard Khadijah Sessions, who struggled running the team.
"I thought she felt the crowd and the energy and it made her move a lot quicker than she normally does," Staley said. "When that's the head of your basketball team, they tend to follow that."
Notes: The highest attendance for a women's basketball game at Colonial Life Arena came in the first game in the arena in 2002, when 17,712 watched South Carolina play Clemson... Coates' double-double was her eighth of the season. She needs one more to tie Kelsey Bone for the Gamecock freshman record... South Carolina won five Metro Conference regular season championships... The Gamecocks have now won 12 SEC Championships (not including tournament titles) across all sports.