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Underdogs? Defending SEC champs embrace role, win Tourney

Last year South Carolina won the National Championship but before they got there they won the SEC Conference Tournament. This year, entering the championship, all the talk was about Mississippi State. The Gamecocks heard the noise and used it as motivation.

NCAA Womens Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-South Carolina vs Mississippi State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, TN In order to defeat an opponent with a perfect record, South Carolina needed to essentially play a perfect game on Sunday.

The Gamecocks were up to the challenge.

Thrust into the role of underdog for one of the few times in recent years, No. 8-ranked South Carolina captured its fourth straight SEC Tournament title — an unprecedented achievement in the conference’s rich history — by stunning previously-unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Mississippi State, 62-51, in the SEC championship game at Bridgestone Arena.

The Gamecocks (26-6), the defending national champs, checked off every box during the victory over the Bulldogs (32-1). Indeed, head coach Dawn Staley couldn’t have scripted it much better.

So, how’d they do it? Let us count the ways.

(1) South Carolina needed A’ja Wilson to be available. The three-time SEC Player of the Year has been bothered by vertigo in recent days, and her availability for the tournament was in doubt. But when the bell rang, she was ready to go. Wilson, who ranks among the nation’s top-10 in points, rebounds, blocks and double-doubles, was able to play in all three of South Carolina’s tournament games, including Sunday’s victory.

And not only did she play, she played big. Huge, in fact. She finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots in 33 minutes. But even if her numbers had been less impressive, simply having her on her floor, even in small spurts, turns South Carolina into a different team.

Without Wilson, the Gamecocks are a good team. With her, they are elite. (For reference, look no further than a couple of regular-season games in which Wilson was unavailable — a lackluster win over Vanderbilt and a lopsided loss to Tennessee).

Clearly, the Gamecocks needed her on Sunday. And the best player in the nation’s best conference answered the call. By the way, Wilson will graduate from South Carolina without having ever lost a game in the SEC Tournament. That’s remarkable. And so is she.

(2) South Carolina needed to embrace the role of underdog. On some occasions, good teams, even great teams, need a source of motivation. South Carolina is no exception. The Gamecocks needed something to fuel their fire during the tournament. And they found it from an unlikely source: The media. For the past week (and for much of the regular season), South Carolina had been seeing Mississippi State garner most of the attention — and rightly so, considering the Bulldogs are having a historic season.

But almost like an older sibling that is being upstaged by her younger sister, the Gamecocks surely grew weary of hearing about Mississippi State. And sharing the national spotlight — even with a fellow SEC team — probably didn’t sit well with the Gamecocks.

“We definitely were the underdogs,” said Staley during a postgame interview Sunday on ESPN2. “We weren’t the most talked about team in this SEC tournament. We flew under the radar — and it was a good place for this team to be.” Do you think Staley told her team that same message before the game? There’s little doubt that she did. And the Gamecocks gobbled it up.

(3) South Carolina needed to neutralize Teaira McCowan. Although Mississippi State has terrific players galore — Victoria Vivians, Roshunda Johnson, Morgan William and Blair Schaefer, among them — the player that makes the Bulldogs practically unbeatable is 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan.

Few teams in the country have a post player like her, and even fewer can contain her. But South Carolina managed to do so. McCowan was in foul trouble early, which proved to be huge in helping South Carolina build a 30-19 halftime lead. (South Carolina, somewhat stunningly, outscored the Bulldogs 14-2 in the paint in the first 20 minutes.) No player, no matter how good they are, can score from the bench.

And even when McCowan was on the floor, South Carolina never allowed her to dominate. She finished with six points and six rebounds.

(4) South Carolina needed to shut down Mississippi State’s perimeter game. The secret to Mississippi State’s success (well, actually, it’s no secret at all) is that the Bulldogs can do damage from both inside and out. While McCowan is doing her thing in the paint, the Bulldogs can bury an opponent with a flurry of 3s.

Vivians, for instance, is inside her range pretty much any time she is wearing high tops, and Schafer is as deadly as they come. But Sunday, South Carolina never let the Bulldogs get in sync. They finished 3-of-19 from long range, including an 0-for-5 effort from the normally reliable Schaefer.

So, there were the four keys for South Carolina — and the Gamecocks clearly went 4-for-4 in meeting those objectives. And now, the Gamecocks can enjoy their SEC four-peat after silencing their doubters in emphatic fashion.

“We believed in one another; we had confidence,” said Wilson during a postgame interview on ESPN2. “And that’s what it takes. We came out here and took care of business.”

Perfectly said.