WBB: Gamecocks headed to quarterfinals

The South Carolina women's basketball team overcame some early offensive woes to throttle Alabama, 57-38, in the first round of the SEC women's basketball tournament in Nashville. A 22-4 run to close the first half led to a 32-14 lead, and the Gamecocks cruised in the second half with many starters resting on the bench.

For the second-straight season, No. 25 South Carolina won its opening-round SEC Tournament game. The Gamecocks (22-8) powered through a tough shooting night for a 57-38 win over 11th-seeded Alabama Thursday night. All 13 active players saw game action as South Carolina used a 22-4 run midway through the first half to build what would be an insurmountable lead. Senior guard La'Keisha Sutton was the early offensive spark, and senior Charenee Stephens matched her career high of three blocked shots in the game's first four minutes to set the tone defensively.

The first half was defined by the 22-4 run that ended the first 20 minutes of the game. South Carolina had jumped out to a lead but saw the Crimson Tide come back as the Gamecocks drove to the basket but got off only wild shots thanks to physical defense inside. With the game tied 10-10 midway through the half, the Gamecock offense got sparked by what has been a season-long nemesis - trips to the free throw line.

Sutton got it going with a pair with just under eight minutes to play, and Markeshia Grant added two more a minute later. Moments later, Grant picked up a steal and converted the layup on the other end. From there, the floodgates opened as the defense locked into the passing lanes to force turnovers on the Crimson Tide's next four possessions. As a result, Grant added two more free throws, Stephens stuck back an offensive rebound, Grant finished a transition layup and Sutton hit a pair of free throws. The initial 16-0 spurt closed with another Sutton basket for a 26-10 South Carolina advantage with 3:56 left in the half.

The Crimson Tide tried to mount a rally with back-to-back buckets, but the Gamecocks went to freshman Tina Roy for a pair of 3-pointers that closed the first half and sent South Carolina into the locker room with a 32-14 advantage.

Defense was the order of the day as the Gamecocks limited the Crimson Tide to just six field goals in the first half while forcing Alabama into 15 turnovers in the opening stanza. South Carolina's Achilles heel of free throws turned out to be its salvation as the stalled offense was keyed by the Gamecocks hitting 11 straight, including nine as part of the game-changing 22-4 surge.

Sutton's 15 points in just 20 minutes led the offense, and Grant joined her in double figures with 10 points. Stephens and Aleighsa Welch, who made her return to the court after missing the last two games with an injury, tied for team-high honors with five rebounds each. Players off the bench also made significant contributions, including junior guard Imani Sellers, who doubled her previous career high with six points.

SOUTH CAROLINA NOTES

• South Carolina is now 22-8 on the season, 5-20 all-time in the SEC Tournament and will advance to play Georgia at 9:00 on Friday, a rematch of last year's second round.
• This marks the first time that USC has won SEC Tournament games in back-to-back seasons.
• USC swept all three games from the Tide this season, having previously won 68-42 in Columbia on Jan. 1 and 69-55 in Tuscaloosa on Feb. 19.
• South Carolina has now won six straight games in the series with Alabama and took the lead in the overall series, 16-15.
• Dawn Staley is a perfect 6-0 against the Tide, the only SEC team she has not lost to as head coach of the Gamecocks.
• Senior guard La'Keisha Sutton led USC with 15 points for her 20th game this season in double-figures and 63rd for her career.
• Senior guard Markeshia Grant had 10 points, the 16th time this season she scored in double-figures and 24th time in her career.
• 10 of 13 players that entered the game scored for South Carolina.
• Sutton was a perfect 7-7 at the free throw line, hitting season highs for both attempts and free throws made.
• Grant had a career-high four free throws made.
• USC won the battle of bench points, 30-10 and points in the paint, 24-20.
• South Carolina outrebounded Alabama 42-40.


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