“A heck of a basketball game today,” Coach Vic Schaefer said. “We just ran out of time.”
#2-ranked South Carolina did a little more with the time, gritting out a 57-51 victory over #10 Mississippi State that keeps the Gamecocks perfect on the season, 19-0 and atop the SEC at 7-0. The Bulldogs are 17-4 and 4-3 SEC. Had they won, State would have been in a multi-way tie for second in the league.
Still with an announced 10,626 packing Humphrey Coliseum, the fourth-largest attendance for any sort of basketball in the 40-year-old arena, the home team came within moments of shaking up not just the SEC order but the national polls.
Within a few specific moments, Schaefer said. South Carolina converted a pair of transition opportunities down the stretch to sustain a two-play margin, and made just enough stops at the other end.
“I can go on and on about plays,” Schaefer said. “But the end of the day when you play #2 in the country you have to make those plays for 40 minutes. And we made those plays for about 39.”
This kept everyone in their seats up to when South Carolina’s star guard Tiffany Mitchell canned a pair of free throws at 0:10 to clinch victory. Even as her team escaped, having scored a season-low 57 points, Coach Dawn Staley enjoyed the setting and excitement.
“I thought it was great,” Staley said. “I thought it affected our play, we weren’t in character to come into this environment. I’m happy over 10,000 people got to see womens players in the peaks of their careers in college.”
The Gamecocks got a game-best 21 points out of Mitchell, nine of them in the last 3:48. “I’m not surprised by her performance tonight,” Staley said.
But Mitchell’s work on defense might have been the bigger factor. She drew the assignment of chasing State’s Victoria Vivians around for most of the 37 minutes-played.
Vivians still came away with a team-leading 19 points in 39 minutes. But the sophomore star had to take 25 shots to get there and made just seven field goals, going 2-of-9 at the arc. “I tried to bother her as much as possible,” Mitchell said.
“Whoever guarded me they did a pretty good job,” Vivians said. “I was rushing shots, I took a couple of bad shots.”
Then again good shots for anyone of any sort were hard to come by. The officiating crew wisely let two physical squads go after each other, which seemed to impact South Carolina’s post play more. Their starting forwards and centers were 5-of-15 for the game and scored nothing in the first quarter. But the Dogs weren’t much better themselves leading 8-7 after one period.
Vivians was struggling more than anyone to take and make good shots. Still she did create points with a remarkable sliding-steal in front of her bench, a behind-back dribble at mid-court, and pull-up jumper just inside the arc for a 16-11 State lead. The Bulldogs ought have been in front at halftime by one. Except a tied rebound was given to the Gamecocks at 1.9 seconds, enough for Tina Roy to bank-in a trey for the 22-20 advantage.
South Carolina looked ready to take control in the new half, building a 28-20 lead before Schaefer could stop play. Guard Dominique Dillingham likely kept it a contest with a corner-trey, and while the Bulldogs did briefly force a tie at 35-all they could never take a lead.
The best chance was with a 44-43 scoreboard at 3:29 when Vivians got a jumper to drop. Mitchell, a two-time SEC Player of the Year, did better by getting downcourt for a driving layup, foul, and free throw. Twice in the last minute State got within two points, without the ball. Khadijah Sessions kept it a two-series margin with a gutsy short jumper in the lane at 0:30; and Asia Dozier matched MSU’s free throws at 0:23.
“The game comes down to possessions,” Schaefer said. “We had two transition baskets we gave up under three (minutes), and the play before halftime. If you just take care of everything, if they score on one, you have a chance to win.”
William and forward Ketara Chapel each scored ten points for State, as the Bulldogs shot just 27% for the game. Post players Chinwe Okorie, Breanna Richardson, and Teaira McGowan combined for seven points in 57 minutes and MSU was out-rebounded 40 to 31. Schaefer saw that stat as deceptive though, since Bulldogs had 12 offensive rebounds but only got four second-chance points.
Mitchell was 6-of-15 shooting and had seven turnovers but also was 8-of-9 at the stripe, and every one-pointer counted double in this game. Roy provided just enough outside punch with three treys and 11 points off the bench, and Sessions scored ten points.
The box score did not look like a #2-ranked team. That though was a reflection of how hard the Bulldogs battled, their coach thought. Especially as because of last week’s schedule with Monday and Thursday games, State had only one practice day for South Carolina.
“I thought we answered everything they threw at us,” Schaefer said. “We had a lot of positives, free throws, forced turnovers, so many good things. Again I’m disappointed with the loss but at the same time I want them to know how proud I am of them.”
And, of the record-smashing crowd. “It was a great atmosphere, I loved it,” said guard Morgan William.
Repeating the crowd-count might be a challenge. But the next home game is a similar opportunity. The Bulldogs host Tennessee this Thursday, and while the Volunteers are only #18 in the current polls (the next rankings come out Monday) it will still be a top-twenty matchup at 8:00ct.
Plus, there’s historical incentive for fans: no Lady Bulldog team has ever defeated Tennessee.