If college basketball was a 39-minute game, South Carolina women's basketball team would have lost to the LSU Tigers Thursday night at the Colonial Life Arena. Luckily, it's a 40-minute game and the Gamecocks needed, literally, every second of it. The Gamecocks overcame an early 18-point deficit and Ieasia Walker knocked down two free throws with just over two seconds remaining to lift the Gamecocks to an improbable 63-61 victory over the Tigers. The Gamecocks improved to 9-6 on the season, evening their conference mark at 1-1, while the Tigers fell to 10-6 and 0-2 in SEC play.
The game couldn't have gotten off to a worse start for the Gamecocks or better start for the Tigers. LSU connected on eight of their first nine shots and the Gamecocks only hit one as the Tigers built a 20-4 lead just six minutes into the game. The lead would expand to 25-7 as LSU made just about every shot they took and the Gamecocks were shooting less than 20% from the field.
After a Marah Strickland three-pointer made it 25-10, head coach Dawn Staley had a chance to talk to her team in a media timeout. Her message was simple - stick to what you do best.
"Just stick to the gameplan," Staley said. "We did some things early on - switching everything(defensively) - and they made us pay for it. We were a little discombobulated. We just went back to doing the things that we were used to doing. They hurt us time and time again with their motion offense so we tweaked it a little bit and fortunately for us we were able turn up the heat defensively."
With the game appearing to already be getting out of hand, the Gamecocks needed some sort of spark to get the team going.
Insert Markeshia Grant.
"Before I went in, Coach told me I needed to pressure the ball so when I went in I pressured the ball and disrupted (them) a little bit and started a run for us," Grant said. "From then on we just kept fighting until we took the lead and won the game."
Staley turned to junior transfer in hopes of getting that needed spark. That's exactly what Grant did. Grant forced several turnovers, got two early steals, and scored six of her team-high 12 points in an 18-4 Gamecock run that trimmed LSU's commanding lead to just 29-25 with 1:45 left in the first half.
"It was huge," Staley said of Grant's performance. "At that point you're just searching for combinations that can give you something different. Markeshia practiced extremely well so I thought she'd be ready to play and give us a lift, mainly from an offensive standpoint. She's quick and athletic so I thought if we put her on the ball it would speed up the play. She came in and stole the ball right away and set the tone for our defense."
LSU would stretch the lead just a bit and take a 33-26 lead into the locker room. A Walker three-pointer to open the half trimmed the lead to four. Grant would knock the ball away from LSU's Latear Eason and dive on top of it, calling a timeout in front of the Gamecock bench as her teammates exploded off the bench to congratulate her on another nice play.
"I just had a lot of confidence coming off the bench in the first half and coach put me in to start the second half and I just kept up the aggression," Grant said. "I had a Coach Boyer attitude - she's very passionate about it."
The teams would trade baskets before Walker nailed another three to trim the lead to 38-36 to start a 13-0 Gamecock run. Grant would follow with a three of her own to give the Gamecocks their first lead of the game five minutes into the second half. After a La'Keisha Sutton jumpshot pushed the lead to three, Grant hit another three pointer to extend the lead to six and Valerie Nainima ended the run with a basket to give the Gamecocks a 46-38 lead with just over 12 minutes remaining in the game.
At that point, it seemed the game started to shift back in the direction of the Tigers. LSU went on an 8-0 run to tie the game before Sutton knocked down two free throws to give the Gamecocks the lead back. Baskets by LaSondra Barrett and Katherine Graham gave the Tigers the lead back, 50-48.
"At that point we were getting good shots," Staley said. "We weren't getting stops. If we're not going to get the buckets then we have to find a way to not let them score a bucket. LSU is a very good basketball team that can score from a lot of positions. We just had to go back to what we've been doing which is getting stops. Our kids grew up tonight and really fought hard. More times than not in the three years I've been here we've been on the losing side of this."
The teams would trade baskets until a Sutton jumper gave the Gamecocks a 57-56 lead with just under three minutes remaining. That's when things really got interesting.
LSU's Courtney Jones quickly nailed a baseline jumper to give the Tigers the lead right back. A pair of Strickland free throws put the Gamecocks on top, 59-58. Adrienne Webb scored on the following possession to give the Tigers a 60-59 lead. Graham went to the line for two, nailing the first to extend the lead to 61-59, but missed the second. However, LSU got the rebound and called timeout with just 1:36 left in the game. Graham would get back to the line again, but missed the front-end of a one-and-one and the Gamecocks got the rebound. Sutton was fouled and sent to the line for a huge one-and-one. Sutton calmly swished both of them to tie the game at 61-61.
After an LSU miss, the Gamecocks called a timeout with 38 seconds left. Whatever play that was drawn up failed as the Gamecocks just passed the ball around the perimeter before Walker was forced to try and drive to the basket. She lost the ball, got it back but had to just throw it up as the shot clock expired. The shot was off and LSU grabbed the rebound and called timeout with 14 seconds left.
The Tigers had an opportunity to take the last shot, but Ashley Bruner stole the ball from Graham and threw the ball ahead to Walker, who was fouled with just 2.4 seconds left. With the CLA so quiet you could hear a pin drop, Walker calmly stepped up and made both free throws.
"I just wanted to push it up the floor and try and attack the basket and get the foul or make the shot," Walker said. "She fouled me and I hit both free throws."
LSU would get a good look after a long pass down court, but Jones' three-pointer fell short as the Gamecocks won for the first time this season when trailing at the half.
"Anytime that you can get a win in this conference (is huge)," Staley said. "For us we want to protect our house, then we want to sneak up and get some wins on the road. It certainly is a confidence booster."
With the Gamecocks down another post player with Charenee Stephens out with a knee injury suffered in the Georgia game, you can't ignore the performance of Courtney Newton. Newton - who's career has been derailed several times with severe knee injuries - could have given up basketball after another torn ACL last season. Instead, she made a commitment to herself and her team to come back and help the team in whatever way she could.
The 5'10 guard was asked to do something tonight guards are rarely asked to do - go in and defend the opponent's tallest player, LSU's 6'2 LaSondra Barrett. Newton did just that. Though she did not score a point and only recorded three rebounds, it was her hustle and heart that helped the Gamecocks stay in the game with Jewel May in foul trouble.
"I probably did her a disservice in not playing her in Georgia," Staley said. "I just forgot about her. We got down big I thought we just needed some athletes in there to defend when Courtney is probably the toughest player we have on our team when it comes to that. I just made sure that I got her in early so that she can mix it up a little bit - she's not afraid to mix it up. She did us proud."
Newton will need to have a similar performance Sunday afternoon when the Gamecocks face a familiar face - Florida's Jordan Jones. Jones - who originally signed with Carolina - left after her freshman season when Staley was hired. Newton and Jones were roommates and have continued a close bond with each other.
"She's always Courtney - with a smile on her face," Staley said. "She loves to compete and she doesn't always get the time she wants or deserves but every time we call her number she does something for us."
Tip for Sunday's contest between the Gators and Gamecocks is set for 3:00 P.M.
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