USC Blasts Auburn, Wins Program's 600th
Valerie Nainima led all scorers with 20 points, going 6-9 from behind the arc, as the Gamecocks picked up their 3rd straight SEC victory and the program's 600th win. Kelsey Bone added 15 points and narrowly missed a double-double with 9 rebounds.
The game featured two of the league's biggest players, as Auburn's 6'7 KeKe Carrier went head-to-head with South Carolina's 6'5 Bone. Both were a focal point for the opposition, particularly Carrier. South Carolina would routinely double-team Carrier, several times even triple-teaming her.
"They (South Carolina) really did play really well defensively." Carrier said. "It seemed like they doubled down and it was a real tough battle and they did a good job dropping other players down to defend me."
Bone knew that winning the post battle would be a key to winning the game.
"I had to come out and we had to win the post battle," the freshman star said. "There was a couple of match-ups that we stressed and that was one of them. I never played anyone that size (Carrier) so that was really new."
Like a heavyweight boxing match, the two teams went blow-for-blow early on. Though Auburn never led, they did not allow the Gamecocks to pull away. Carolina could only get out to a 6-point lead several times before the Tigers came battling back. A Carrier lay-up cut the Gamecock lead to 22-19 with just over 2 minutes to play in the half. Nainima, who had been held to only 2 points at the time, landed 2 big blows in the final 30 seconds of the half. Nainima, who found herself open at the top of the key, drilled her first 3-pointer of the afternoon to give Carolina a 25-19 lead with 34 seconds remaining. After an Alli Smalley missed 3-pointer, Nainima found herself open again - this time from the right elbow - and drained it with 4 seconds remaining to give the Gamecocks a 28-19 lead at the half.
"I'm not used to shooting shots that are wide open," Nainima said of having many open shots in the game. "I knew coming into this game that I had to make the shots because they have a very big presence in Keke and I knew Kelsey was going to have a new experience today, so I knew I had to contribute from outside."
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knew that her team's 20 first half points inside the paint drew Auburn's attention away from her 3-point specialist.
"We've talked to Val about sometimes just sneaking around the offense; make them forget about you. We actually talked about that in one of the timeouts in the first half where I said 'They're not thinking about you now.' Kelsey was scoring and Ashley (Bruner) was scoring, and then she had some opportunities to knock down some shots and she did it."
In the second half, the Gamecocks would not allow the Tigers to get back in the game. Carrier opened the half with 2 free throws to trim the lead to 7, but that would be as close as Auburn would get. Nainima continued her hot shooting, going 4-5 from 3-point range, La'Keisha Sutton hit both of her 3-point attempts, and Bone added 9 points as the Gamecocks pulled away. The lead would get as high as 22 at 55-33 mid-way through the second half before the Gamecocks got a little sloppy on both ends to allow Auburn to cut it down to the final margin of 14.
With the win, USC improves to 10-7 and 3-2 in conference play. The 3 wins are already more than the Gamecocks won in Staley's first year at the helm. Bone sees this as evidence that things are beginning to change in Columbia.
"I remember the record from last year, obviously because I was being recruited here. It feels good to see the tide kind of changing and to know that we have 3 SEC wins and 10 wins on the season. And I just want to let everyone know that we are making progress and improvements."
Next up for the Gamecocks is a trip down to Baton Rouge and a Thursday night rematch with LSU, who defeated the Gamecocks 70-58 in the conference opener. Though the Gamecocks have not beaten LSU since an SEC Tournament game in 1998 and has never won in Baton Rouge, Staley likes the fact that her team will take some confidence with them down to Baton Rouge.
"I like that we are playing them on a 3-game winning streak. I think we'll take some confidence going into their place, and hopefully we can learn some things that we didn't do too well the last time out."
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