Columbia, SC — When the No. 4 and No. 5 teams in the NCAA meet, it’s a big deal. But when No. 4 and No. 5 are both undefeated in their conference, it’s a huge deal. That was the story when Mississippi State and South Carolina met on Monday where the Gamecocks won 64-61.
“You tip your hat to South Carolina,” said head coach Vic Schaefer, “They made one more play than we made. My heart is broken for my kids, my heart is broken for everyone in that locker room.”
There was a lot on the line, but it was the Bulldogs offense that set the tone in the first quarter at the hands of small but mighty Morgan William.
South Carolina didn’t get on the board until A’Ja Wilson’s two at the 7:30 mark.
Wilson let Mississippi State know how it was going to be at the top of the second quarter: she posted a jumper just seconds after the quarter began, and then Allisha Gray got to the free-throw line moments later.
The Gamecocks shot much better at 56%, than the Bulldogs’ 46 percent, in the first half -- as South Carolina choose shots meticulously, whereas Mississippi State was much more liberal. But South Carolina’s defense struggled as time elapsed.
Wilson did what she does best in the first two-quarters, by scoring easy buckets in the paint and crashing the boards. As the team’s headed into halftime, she had 16 points, and five rebounds, but the Bulldogs were still leading, 35-28.
Coming out of intermission, the Gamecocks looked more electric as Wilson scored a layup assisted by Tiffany Davis at 7:43 which ignited a scoring surge for the home team. In the blink of an eye, South Carolina lead 41-37 at 5:39 after Tiffany Harris’ and Gray’s threes. The Gamecocks were making sure Mississippi State knew they were not going to roll over to an undefeated team.
It was Gray’s jumper off of a turnover that changed the pace with 30 seconds in the third. South Carolina was neck and neck with the Bulldogs, 49-48.
With less than 6:00 left, the Gamecocks held Mississippi State to 53-53. It felt like an eternity before the teams scored again.
“At that point, we had to just play,” said head coach Dawn Staley, “Either they get a score and we get a stop. Whoever executes it was going to win the game.”
With 3:55 remaining in the game, the Bulldogs lost their post defenders as Teaira McCowan, and Chinwe Okorie both were eliminated from the contest after each picked up their fifth fouls and that fed South Carolina’s fire as Alaina Coates attacked the paint immediately and headed to the line.
Could this give the Gamecocks the edge the needed to defeat Mississippi State?
The short answer to that question -- yes, majorly...and Wilson’s big rebound, free throws, and Coates’ layup with less than a minute left helped boost the team to victory.
“This was a very emotional game for us,” stated Wilson. “And we competed for 40 minutes.”
Next, South Carolina heads to Athens to play Georgia on Jan. 26, and Mississippi State hosts Texas A&M on Jan. 29.