If there's been one consistent for the South Carolina women's basketball team this season, it's been Ieasia Walker. The Sophomore leads the team in scoring with 13 per game and led the team in steals with 66 entering Sunday's game against Auburn at the Colonial Life Arena. Walker was practically a no-show, failing to score a point and only registering three steals. It didn't matter. La'Keisha Sutton tied a career-high with 24 points, Valerie Nainima scored 15 - going 3-for-4 from long range and 4-of-4 from the free throw line - and Ashley Bruner scored 14 to lead the Gamecocks to a 65-49 victory over the Tigers.
"When Keisha's playing as well as she's playing from an offensive standpoint - I still think she gave up a couple of shots - and then Val started hitting her outside shots we give ourselves a chance when at least two of our perimeter players are really hitting," coach Dawn Staley said after the game. "Then Ashley was going to work a little bit inside on the block. When we have that kind of balance - get two or three of our players in double-figures - we give ourselves a chance to win."
Carolina got off to a rough start offensively as Auburn came out the aggressor. The Gamecocks missed their first nine shots - most from inside the paint - as the Tigers built an early 8-0 lead. Sutton finally ended the drought with a driving lay-up nearly five minutes into the game. Grant followed with a three-pointer to draw the Gamecocks within three, but the Tigers responded with two quick baskets to extend the lead back to seven.
The Gamecocks spent the next ten minutes slowly chipping away at the Tiger lead. A fastbreak lay-up by Ashley Bruner gave the Gamecocks their first lead of the game at 19-18 with just over four minutes left in the half. Back-to-back Nainima three-pointers gave the Gamecocks a 25-22 lead and a Sutton lay-up gave the Gamecocks a 27-22 lead. A desperation heave by Nainima from just beyond half-court rattled around the rim before coming out to end the half.
Nainima and the Gamecocks picked up where she left off in the second half, draining a three from in front of the Gamecock bench. Nainima is starting to look and feel like the Nainima that led Carolina in scoring a season ago.
"My old self is coming back to me," Nainima said. "I feel some things that I used to feel before and everything is coming back slowly. I'm very happy it is at this time of the year."
Sutton followed that with a fastbreak lay-up and then made one of two free throws the next time down as the Gamecocks built a double-digit lead, 33-22. After a Morgan Toles free throw, Courtney Newton drained her first three from beside the Carolina bench and followed that with a three from the other corner to give the Gamecocks a 39-24 lead. After another Auburn free throw, Sutton nailed a three from the elbow to give the Gamecocks a 17-point lead, 42-25. Grant's fastbreak lay-up closed out a 22-3 run and extended the lead to 19 before a Parrisha Simmons reverse lay-up ended a near six minute field goal drought to start the half for the Tigers. Back-to-back Chantel Hilliard baskets sandwiched around a Charenee Stephens free throw drew the Tigers back to within 14 points, but Auburn never posed a serious threat the rest of the game.
"We're playing confident and trusting each other more and not looking too far ahead," Sutton said. "It was a good win."
Toles, who torched the Gamecocks for 22 points and scored the final nine points of the game in a 54-47 Tiger win, finished with just 11 points. Hilliard also scored 11 for Auburn and Morgan Jennings had six.
With the win Carolina is guaranteed no worse than a .500 mark in the SEC and has topped last year's win total of seven for the best conference record in the Staley era. With LSU's loss to Arkansas, the Gamecocks are in sole possession of fifth in the conference, while also keeping their hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth alive.
"From a coaching staff standpoint, we think about it all the time," Staley said. "We just can't pass that down to our players because it's pressure in itself the more we add to it. We want our players to play as normal as possible and as fresh as possible. The only way to do that is to keep taking one game at a time."
"Our whole team likes to dance, so it'd be nice to dance in March," Sutton said.
Carolina returns to action Thursday, traveling to Baton Rouge to take on LSU before closing out the regular season next Sunday at home against Vanderbilt.
Note: Samone Kennedy - a senior from Birmingham, Alabama - has been dismissed from the team. "Samone has been dismissed from the team and it's a coach's decision," was the response from Staley. Kennedy finished her Gamecock career
with 62 starts and averaged just under five points a game.
Gamecocks Blast Tigers, 65-49
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