On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks passed their toughest test of the season by squeaking out an 81-79 win over a feisty No. 9 Mississippi State Bulldogs team that would not go quietly. In fact, the Gamecocks were trailing by nine points with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Head coach Dawn Staley called a timeout with hopes of getting her players back on track, and after the game she said the team’s disposition during the timeout gave her hope they could pull out a win.
“Everybody was really positive in that timeout,” Staley said. “So I’m like, we got a shot. We’ve got a shot to come back because they believe.”
Led by senior Tyasha Harris, who scored a game-high 23 points, the Gamecocks went on a 12-2 run to narrow the gap. A three-point play by freshman backcourt dynamo Zia Cooke put the Gamecocks back on top, and that’s not the last the Bulldogs would see of her.
Harris stayed poised and used defense to create offense. Her steal and fastbreak layup pulled the Gamecocks to within one point. Jessika Carter missed a much-needed shot for Mississippi State, which Brea Beal scooped up for her rebound tally. It was converted into a made jumper for Harris and an 80-79 advantage for South Carolina. Jordan Danberry missed a shot with 1:06 remaining and it was Cooke who claimed the rebound. Harris then missed a jumper and it was freshman frontcourt phenom Aliyah Boston who secured the rebound.
With 39 seconds to play, it was an exchange of missed shots by both teams until the 11-second mark, when Danberry fouled out of the game, sending Harris to the line.
Harris missed her first free-throw attempt but banked the second to increase the South Carolina lead to 81-79.
The Bulldogs had possession with six seconds remaining, but not for long. Cooke swooped in on the in-bounds pass for a steal at half court. She dribbled the clock out for the Gamecocks’ victory.
After the game, Cooke explained her method, which was simple:
”Let’s catch it,” Cooke said she was thinking on the play. “And then I need to run away from her so she can’t catch me ...”
It is monster plays like this, on both sides of the ball, that Staley praised after the game, even though the team didn’t play their best basketball overall.
“You had a say in (the outcome of the game),” Staley said. “You made plays. And that’s what it’s all about. Being able to not play your best basketball and still be able to get a win.”
Staley also praised the fan base, the largest of NCAA women’s teams and which totaled 13,163 strong on Monday night. “We packed this arena, and they were loud and proud for us,” Staley said.
Where things stand
The Gamecocks are now 18-1 overall and 6-0 in the SEC, the last team undefeated in conference play. The Gamecocks remain undefeated both at home and on the road, too, with their one loss coming in the neutral territory of Paradise Jam (U.S. Virgin Islands) in November. The win over Mississippi State pushed South Carolina’s winning streak to 12 games, and they are No. 1 in the conference and potentially still No. 1 in the nation. Rankings and standings aside, the Gamecocks must resolve the lapses on defense that allowed the Bulldogs to take the lead.
The Bulldogs are 17-3 and 4-1 in SEC play. Mississippi State is third in the conference behind Tennessee, and their three losses have come at home, on the road (to the Gamecocks on Monday) and in neutral territory. Although there are no moral victories, the Bulldogs should feel confident about a narrow loss to the top team in the nation that was trailing well into the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs’ road trip takes them to Nashville on Thursday, Jan. 23 (9 p.m. ET, SEC Network) and they return home on Sunday to host Ole Miss (5 p.m. ET, SEC Network).
The Gamecocks play their next two games on the road — at Georgia on Sunday, Jan. 26 (3 p.m. ET, SEC Network) and at Ole Miss on Jan. 30 (8 p.m. ET, SEC Network Plus).