March 3, 2012
NASHVILLE - No. 25 South Carolina advanced to the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time in school history with a 59-55 win over No. 16/15 Georgia Friday night. The Gamecocks (23-8) shot 70.0 percent from the free throw line, including six straight to clinch the win. It was a complete effort for South Carolina, which had just one player in double figures and had six with four or more rebounds. Junior Ashley Bruner led the way with 12 points, while Ieasia Walker paced the team with five rebounds, including three offensive.
The first half was a see-saw battle as both each team would surge ahead only to see the other rally back. Both seemed to want to establish the inside game, but it was the Gamecocks' free throws and extra 3-pointer that were the difference going into the locker room. Each team hit 11 field goals and pulled down 20 rebounds in the first stanza.
Georgia was the early aggressor, establishing a tenuous 8-4 lead, which the Gamecocks answered at the free throw line. Bruner hit two of her four attempts from the charity stripe then found Aleighsa Welch with a nice pass to the right block to knot the score 8-8 with 12:06 left in the period. The teams traded the lead six times over the next five minutes of play, the last of which was a pair of Ieasia Walker free throws that put the Gamecocks up 16-15.
Continued good work on the defensive glass limited the Lady Bulldogs to just one shot, and the Gamecocks built on their lead. Welch battled hard for a rebound then put it back for an 18-15 edge with 6:17 left in the period. Khaalidah Miller drove the lane to get Georgia within one, but the Gamecock offense was up for the challenge. La'Keisha Sutton buried a long jumper from the left wing, and, after the Gamecocks forced a shot clock violation, Tina Roy pulled up for a jumper from the left side. Bruner hit two more free throws for the Gamecocks' largest lead of the game, 24-17 with 2:51 in the period.
Georgia turned the tables quickly, though, doing its own strong glass work to tie the game at 24-24 with a minute to go. South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley called a timeout, and the move paid off. Welch converted a traditional three-point play, and, after a Georgia basket, Roy closed the half with a 3-pointer from the right wing, which sent the Gamecocks into the locker room with a 30-26 advantage.
The second half was more of the same with the Gamecocks hovering around an eight-point lead early before Georgia pushed back to tie the game two more times. The last came at 49-49 on a Jasmine James pull-up jumper in the paint with 6:34 left to play. South Carolina went back to what had worked best in the first half - finding its post players. Welch broke the tie with a move on the left block, and Bruner stretched the lead to four on a drive to the basket after James had been called for a charge on the other end of the floor.
The Lady Bulldogs were solid defensively down the stretch, but South Carolina's relentless pursuit of offensive rebounds finally broke their backs. Trailing by four, Georgia yielded a pair of offensive boards on the Gamecocks' next possession. South Carolina could not score out of the extra shots, but Bruner picked up a steal to set up yet another possession. Welch's offensive rebound led to Sutton's free throws that put the Gamecocks up 55-49 with 3:10 to go.
Meredith Mitchell drained a long jump shot to keep Georgia's hopes alive, but Sutton calmly hit two more free throws with 2:10 to go. The Lady Bulldogs had one more surge left in them. Jasmine Hassell's putback cut it to four, and after snagging the defensive rebound on the other end, James drove to the basket and drew a foul. The resulting two free throws cut the Gamecock lead to just two with 1:03 to go. Georgia forced the Gamecocks into a desperation 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock, but quickly turned the ball over trying to feed the post. Forced to foul, the Lady Bulldogs went after Walker. With 13 seconds to play, the junior out-lasted two Georgia timeouts to seal the victory and South Carolina's first berth in the SEC Tournament semifinals since joining the league for the 1991-92 season.
The Gamecocks picked up the win despite Georgia winning the battle of the paint with a 34-28 edge for points in the paint and a 38-33 advantage on the glass. South Carolina turned the ball over just five times, turned 14 offensive rebounds into 13 second-chance points in the outing and took advantage of 20 free throw attempts, hitting 14 to just nine for Georgia.
South Carolina squares off with No. 13/10 Tennessee at 5 p.m. (CT) on Saturday in the second semifinal of the day. The game will air on ESPNU.
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