Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena was at near capacity on International Women’s Day to see South Carolina roll to its fifth SEC Tournament championship under Dawn Staley. The Gamecocks defense blitzed Mississippi State from the opening tip en route to a 76-62 victory, Sunday.
The ninth-ranked Bulldogs were responsible for giving South Carolina one of its toughest tests of the season, playing the Gamecocks to the buzzer in an 81-79 barn burner on Jan. 20th. But this time, Staley’s star-studded squad left no doubt, limiting Mississippi State to 23% shooting in the first half and 34% for the game.
Mikiah Herbert Harrigan led South Carolina with 15 points and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Tyasha Harris notched a double-double with 10 points and 10 assists. Harris joined Herbert Harrigan on the SEC All-Tournament team, as did Destanni Henderson. A case could be made that the All-Tournament team should consist of five Gamecocks, but the media also recognized the efforts of Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard and Mississippi State’s Rickea Jackson.
In the semifinal, Staley called on her team’s shooting and the Gamecocks responded by hitting on 12 of 29 3-pointers. But in the championship game, it was clear she wanted to see her team drive and feed the post. The game plan resulted in 17 assists and 52 points in the paint.
The one constant throughout the tournament run has been the Gamecocks stifling defense. South Carolina blocked 11 shots, forced 14 turnovers and blistered the Bulldogs in the open court, scoring 25 points in transition.
Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer on South Carolina’s proficiency in the open floor, “Their energy level was outstanding. We got beat up and down the court for 25 fast break points. They looked like the old Kansas men running the break.”
Midway through the third quarter, Aliyah Boston hauled in one of her 11 rebounds before tossing an outlet pass to Harris in the hopes of sparking another fast break opportunity. Harris’ chest pass flew long and over the head of Herbert Harrigan. But Herbert Harrigan rescued the chance with a remarkable save, spinning in air to find Zia Cooke who, in turn, found a sprinting Brea Beal for the layup. The partisan Carolina crowd erupted in shouts, whistles and cheers of approval. The play served as the latest in a long line of exhibits as to why this is the nation’s no. 1 team. Their unselfishness, coordinated effort, athleticism and skill were on full display in the matter of a few seconds.
With the championship net hanging around her neck, Staley singled out her team’s commitment to team goals over individual honor, “They just want to win and they don’t care what it looks like for them. Look at Aliyah Boston. We only got her the ball three, four times, but she kept rebounding and throwing outlet passes and blocking shots. They don’t care. They just want to win.”
The Gamecocks (32-1), a near lock to be awarded the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, outscored their competition 255-182 in Greenville. South Carolina will return to campus in Columbia to celebrate and await its first-round opponent. The NCAA Selection Show will air on ESPN at 7 p.m., tomorrow.