UNC hands South Carolina only loss of season in December
After winning by a margin of less than 20 points for the first time all season in a 76-61 victory at Charlotte on Dec. 8, the South Carolina women’s basketball team watched as the majority of campus emptied following final exams. The Gamecocks maintained high hopes of conquering their remaining nonconference schedule without a blemish before beginning SEC play.
The lone ranked opponent on South Carolina’s nonconference slate was then-No. 14 North Carolina, who the Gamecocks battled in the Carolinas Classic at Myrtle Beach on Dec. 18.
Trailing 39-27 at halftime, the Gamecocks rallied to cut the score to 55-53 with nine minutes to go. The Tar Heels refused to let South Carolina pull away, and held on to knock the Gamecocks from the ranks of the undefeated with a 74-66 triumph.
“Of course, they’re disappointed that they lost this game, but we’ve got a lot of fight left in us,” coach Dawn Staley said after the defeat. “This was one you want to get, but it’s not the tell-all of the season.”
Junior forward Aleighsa Welch recorded a career-high 23 points to go along with six rebounds in the loss. The Gamecocks shot 41 percent from the field, converting on just one of 11 three-point attempts.
North Carolina freshman Stephanie Mavunga recorded her seventh double-double of the season, tallying team highs in points and rebounds with 20 and 12, respectively.
It didn’t take South Carolina long to get back on track, as the Gamecocks defeated Winthrop 69-61 at home.
Despite leading by as much as 19, South Carolina had to thwart a rally that saw Winthrop get within four points with less than five minutes to play. Sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell led South Carolina with 20 points and seven assists.
The Gamecocks finished their nonconference schedule strong with back-to-back dominant wins over South Carolina State and Savannah State with scores of 70-26 and 82-40, respectively.
On Jan. 2, South Carolina opened SEC play with a 55-51 victory over previously unbeaten Arkansas. Mitchell once again led the team with 16 points as the Gamecocks held on to the 12 point lead they built at halftime.
Following a 76-66 win over Vanderbilt in the conference home opener in which Alaina Coates posted a career high 24 points, No. 10 South Carolina took part in its first top-10 matchup in almost 12 years when they hosted No. 9 Kentucky last Thursday.
South Carolina’s swarming defense held the Wildcats to just 32 percent shooting and blocked 14 shots — six courtesy of junior center Elem Ibiam — en route to a 68-59 victory. The Gamecocks’ win was the third against a top-10 team in the Dawn Staleyera.
Mitchell, who dropped a game-high 17 points in the clash, noted the significance of a win over such a quality opponent.
“It’s a great win for us,” Mitchell said. “It’s a great confidence builder but we know we still have a long SEC season ahead, so we can’t really get too high off of this.”
South Carolina came out of the gates slow at Auburn on Sunday in its last contest of the winter break, falling behind by as much 12 in the first half. The Gamecocks erased the deficit by halftime and ultimately prevailed 72-66 to remain unbeaten in conference play.
The Gamecocks earned a 7-1 record in the time that classes were out of session, with the loss to the Tar Heels coming as South Carolina’s only defeat of the season. And Staley said that South Carolina’s lofty ranking means her team will not be sneaking up on any opponents as it charges into SEC play.
“We’re the hunted at this point,” Staley said. “We just had to keep our heads, stay calm and know that throughout the course of the game, there are going to be runs. We just had to wait for our run.”