WBB: Gamecocks send seniors out with win

South Carolina honored its five seniors Sunday afternoon prior to the final regular season home game. It was one of those seniors, La'Keisha Sutton, that helped lead the Gamecocks back from a second half deficit of eight points to defeat Arkansas Sunday afternoon at the Colonial Life Arena by a score of 53-47. With the win, Carolina ties a school record in SEC wins with 10 and improves to 21-8.

For the past two seasons, the South Carolina women's basketball team suffered from late season collapses to miss out on a possible at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Though the Gamecocks had nearly clinched an at-large bid with a great non-conference record and good start to conference play, the 2011-12 season was in danger of ending in similar fashion for the Gamecocks. Entering the final game of the season, Carolina had lost three of its last five games. For much of Sunday's game against Arkansas, the Gamecocks appeared to be headed for their fourth loss in its final six games.

La'Keisha Sutton and Ieasia Walker were not going to let that happen.

An Arkansas three-pointer and three-point play early in the second half gave the Razorbacks a 38-30 lead and seemingly had Carolina on the ropes, but Walker and Sutton ignited a 14-4 run to give the Gamecocks their first lead of the night midway through the second half and a lead it would hold until the finish in a 53-47 win at the Colonial Life Arena. With the win Carolina could be the fifth seed in next week's SEC Tournament should LSU defeat Georgia Sunday evening. Should Georgia beat the Tigers, Carolina would remain as the sixth seed.

Walker started the run with a fastbreak layup, then Charenee Stephens had back-to-back baskets – the second on an offensive rebound and assist from Walker – to cut the lead to two. After a Quistelle Williams jumper gave the Razorbacks a 42-38 lead, a lay-up and jumper from Sutton tied the game at 42-42, and then Walker grabbed a defensive rebound and raced from baseline to baseline for a lay-up to give the Gamecocks their first lead of the game with 10:02 left to play and the Gamecocks would not relinquish that lead.

As a team the Carolina shot 47% from the floor and the suffocating Gamecock defense limited the Razorbacks to just 33% shooting. Both teams were equally bad from behind the arc as Carolina made just one of their ten attempts and the Razorbacks made just two of their ten. The free throw line kept Arkansas going as the Razorbacks connected on 15-of-20 attempts while the Gamecocks were just 6-of-13.

It was inside the paint where the Gamecocks dominated, despite the presence of Sarah Watkins and Dominique Robinson. Carolina outscored the Razorbacks 42-18 in the paint and scored 19 second chance points off 18 offensive rebounds.

"It was part of the game plan; attacking the paint and getting it down to the paint," Sutton said. "We knew coming in they switch and play sagging man (coverage) so I credit Coach McCray for the scouting report and getting us ready for Arkansas."

Bruner, who had six offensive rebounds, believed that the lack in size did not mean much when the Razorbacks did not do the fundamentals, as evident by the number of offensive boards.

"From film we knew they didn't box out so if they didn't put a body on me I was going to the glass," Bruner said.

To say Carolina struggled early on is an understatement – that is except for La'Keisha Sutton. While the Gamecocks turned the ball over time and time again early on and giving up easy lanes to the basket for the Razorbacks, Sutton kept Carolina in the game. She scored the first six points of the half and 10 of the first 20 points as Carolina cut an Arkansas lead that was as high as seven down to two at 22-20. Arkansas would score six of the next eight points to lead 28-22, but Carolina scored the last two baskets by the half capped off by a putback of her own missed three by Courtney Newton to cut the lead to 28-26 heading to the locker room.

"One of the adjustments we made towards the end of the first half because they were playing off our post players and clogging up the lane was to go to a 1-4 flat," Staley said. "It's our clearout play where we either go one-on-one or add in dribble handoffs. We thought that opening the floor up a little bit allowed us to attack the basket."

That obviously would help in the second half of the Gamecocks continuously got to the basket – scoring 24 of their 27 points in the paint – to pull out their tenth conference win, tying the school best that was set in the 2001-02 season. Carolina finishes the season 21-8 and 10-6 in conference play, and will head into the tournament on a high note thanks in large part to its seniors.

"I do think in order for you to be successful is that you have to have experience," Staley said. "These seniors have been through a 10-18 season and it didn't feel good. We looked at things a little bit differently in that we wanted to turn that around and it took us to committing to one another and committing to being a student athlete. These seniors really matured and put themselves in a position to take this program to another level since I've been here."

Unlike any other season in the Staley Era, the Gamecocks have the NCAA Tournament to look forward to when it concludes the conference tournament next weekend.

"We have an opportunity to get in through winning the SEC Tournament – that's first and foremost," Staley said. "Our resume speaks for itself. Two of the members of the NCAA Tournament Committee came to the SEC coaches' meeting in the spring and broke down the conference and I think a lot of coaches in the league have taken that to heart.

They told us that we need to play better competition in the non-conference. They also told us that we have to win more basketball games. There isn't a magic number – not just 20 wins – you do have to go on other people's floors and beat them. I think everybody from top to bottom upped their schedules and put themselves in a position to win."

Sutton led all scorers with 16 points and Bruner added 15. Ashley Daniels scored 11 to pace the Razorbacks and C'eira Ricketts was limited to just seven points.

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