Nainima, Kennedy lead Gamecocks over NCSU

For the second straight game, it was the Valerie and Samone show as the duo led the Gamecocks to a thrilling 74-71 win over NC State Sunday afternoon at the Colonial Life Arena. Both set season highs, as Nainima led all scorers with 27 points and Kennedy scored 18 points.

None of Kennedy's points were as critical as the last three. With the Gamecocks clinging to a 71-68 lead with less than 20 seconds remaining in the game and the shot clock winding down, Kennedy drove around the left elbow, stepped back, and launched a 3-pointer. She watched the ball go through the basket as she fell back into the first row of the courtside seats to seal the victory for the 5-3 Gamecocks.

"I really didn't think about taking the shot." Kennedy recalled. "All I knew was as I was watching the ball go out of my hand, I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh - they still have time to score. So If I miss this shot, I'm going to hear it big time.'"

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley expressed her happiness with her junior guard's performance and wanted the ball in her hands at the end of the game. "Beforehand I just wanted her to get a shot up. We did say prior to that we wanted her to turn the corner and try to get to the bucket. She couldn't do it, and really Samone has hit shots like that before. I was really happy for her, and I just wanted her to get a shot."

With a smile on her face, Staley told of her conversation with Kennedy after the big shot. "I told her that the basketball gods were on her side. She has been working really hard, and I am just really happy that good things are happening for her."

Staley threw everyone a curveball before the game even started. Freshman star Kelsey Bone was not in the starting line-up for only the second time this season, and gave Ieasia Walker and Ebony Wilson their first starts of their young Gamecock career.

"I just felt like that Ieasia and Ebony were giving us energy in practice that I liked," Staley said of her two young players. "I felt that if they were going to play like that, then you've got to reward them. We were rewarding them for constantly working out, buying into our game plan and always sticking to it in practice."

Early on, it looked as if it was going to be all Nainima, as she scored 5 of the Gamecocks' first 8 points and took a majority of the shots. "I just wanted to go out and execute the game plan," said Nainima. "But after the first few shots, everything started hitting. I wasn't going to let them take over. I just wanted to keep us in the game to put us in a good situation in the end to win the game."

The Gamecocks would build a 13-4 lead early on, but that would be as wide as the margin would get for either team the entire game. The Wolfpack quickly answered with 6 straight points to cut the lead to 13-10, and would eventually take their first lead of the game at 23-21 with just over 7 minutes left in the first half. The teams would fight it out the rest of the half, with NC State striking last with 8 seconds remaining to take a 36-35 lead into the locker room.

Nainima started the second half just as she did the first with a 3-pointer 11 seconds in to give the Gamecocks a 38-36 lead. The Wolfpack struggled to score early in the half, allowing Carolina to open up a 43-37 lead. However, each time it appeared the Gamecocks were going to take control of the game the Wolfpack would fight right back. The Pack answered with a 9-2 run to regain the lead, 46-45, and would not go away.

South Carolina appeared to have the game well in hand with a 71-64 lead on a Jewel May offensive rebound and put back with just under 2 minutes to go. NC State showed they still had a little bit of fight in them. After a free throw and a lay-up cut it to 71-67 with a minute left, Walker turned the ball over underneath the NC State basket and Nainima would foul the Wolfpack's Amber White on a lay-up attempt with 51 seconds remaining. White could only hit one free throw, and that would set the stage for Kennedy's heroics. NC State's Nikitta Gartrell would hit a 3-pointer with 1 second left to make up the final score.

Staley thought that this was the best overall performance the team had all season. "I think from the first minute to the last bucket this was our most complete game. I thought that our kids played really hard. We had some bouts with turning the ball over, but those are very correctable things. I think we got better. We were a better rebounding basketball team (45-39); we were the better team at handling the pressure, and the penetration (was) a little bit better. Some young players grew up, and we are heading in the right direction. Even though we didn't start a couple of our normal starters, we still maintained our same level of intensity, and I was proud of that."

In an injury update, sophomore guard Courtney Newton is done for the season after another heart-breaking knee injury in Friday's practice. Staley expressed her hurt for Newton. "We lost another warrior. She's another one that's always fighting, always working hard. It really is a shame that someone that works as hard as she works and wants to play basketball as much as she wants to play goes down with an injury. But if anybody can come back from it, I think it's Courtney. I just hope the basketball gods are in her favor when she comes back from this injury."

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