Columbia, South Carolina-- It was a Thriller in Columbia as the No. 5 South Carolina Gamecocks dealt No. 4 Mississippi State was their first loss of the season, 64-61.
And this one was not without drama.
Mississippi State initially came out strong against the Gamecocks on both ends of the court. On their first possession of the game, they would chase down four offensive rebounds. They managed to create balanced scoring with plenty of ball movement and only allowed one South Carolina field goal to come from someone other than A’ja Wilson or Alaina Coates. At the half, they led 35-28.
But the deciding factor in the game would ultimately be Allisha Gray. During South Carolina’s slow start, Gray had no field goals in the opening half. By the end of the night, she would finish with 17 points.
Yes, it helps to have two stellar post players on your team in the form of Wilson and Coates. Their high-low game might be among the best in the league, due to their unselfishness and innate ability to find one another. They shot a collective 13-18 from the floor Monday night.
However, as the first half showed, South Carolina would need another spark.
In the first half, Gray was not unproductive on the defensive end. She defended Victoria Vivians and prevented her from going off in the opening quarters, holding her to seven points. Had she let Vivians do whatever she wanted, the game likely would have been out of reach for the Gamecocks in the final 20 minutes.
When the second half began, Gray got things started for the South Carolina with a quick three and two free throws. Her steal that occurred with 6:40 remaining in the third quarter led to a three from Tyasha Harris that gave the Gamecocks their first lead since early in the second quarter.
On the next possession, she would hit a three to bump that lead up to four. The rest of the quarter remained back and forth, but after another made free throw, the Gamecocks headed into the last ten minutes with a one-point lead because of Gray.
The Gamecocks played tight enough defense to avoid another Mississippi State run for the rest of the night. Within the final minute of the game, the Bulldogs would have multiple opportunities to regain the lead as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Vivians would miss a fast break lay-up. During the next possession, she would get fouled on a three-point attempt but miss the last free throw. On the ensuing rebound, there was some debate about whether or not the ball was tipped out by South Carolina or Mississippi State. The call would eventually be overturned in the Bulldogs favor. Another missed three and a missed jumper would force them to foul Wilson after a defensive rebound.
All of that, and the Bulldogs would still have 2.5 seconds to throw up a half-court shot.
However, Gray’s second-half performance proved too big an obstacle for the Bulldogs to overcome. Gray was a prime example of a player letting her defense fuel her offense. That determination allowed South Carolina to always remain in the game, and ultimately enabled them to be victorious in the end.