Gamecocks streaking into big week

Big run helps USC wins its third in a row as Tennessee looms

ashain@thestate.comJanuary 29, 2012 

South Carolina senior guard Markeshia Grant scores on a soaring drive in the second half of the Gamecocks game against Mississippi State at Colonial Life Arena, Sunday, January 29, 2012.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

South Carolina will ride into this week’s showdown with No. 7 Tennessee with a three-game winning streak after a dominating 69-43 victory against Mississippi State on Sunday.

After grabbing an eight-point halftime lead, USC (17-5, 6-3 SEC) scored on 10 of its first 13 possessions to power a 24-7 run that put the game out of reach.

South Carolina used superior speed to force a larger Mississippi State team into ball-handling mistakes and poor shots. Mississippi State could not counter as guards Markeshia Grant, Ieasia Walker and La’Keisha Sutton bolted up the court after missed shots and turnovers.

For the second straight game, Grant spurred the Gamecocks’ second-half push. She scored 10 points and dished three assists — including a no-look pass to Ieasia Walker — in the 24-7 run. USC led by as many as 32 points.

“We started shooting shots in our offense, and sometimes I think that catches people off guard. Because if you’ve scouted us before the last few games, we’re not as aggressive from an offensive standpoint,” USC coach Dawn Staley said.

The Gamecocks have shot 45 percent in wins over Mississippi and Mississippi State, including a season high 49.1 percent Sunday. The team was averaging under 37 percent from the field for the season.

Grant finished with a team-high 17 points, and Sutton added 15 points. The seniors have combined for 69 points, or 53 percent of the team’s scoring, in the past two games.

The defense has returned to form after a recent three-game skid. USC held Mississippi State’s leading scorer, Diamber Johnson, to a season-low two points. She was averaging 17.2 points per game, second best in the SEC.

“She’s the head of their basketball team, and for us, we like to cut the head off and then the rest will go,” Staley said.

Mississippi State (13-8, 3-5) shot 30.6 percent — the lowest by an SEC team against the Gamecocks this season. The Bulldogs could not take advantage on the offensive glass (three second-chance points off 17 offensive rebounds) or USC miscues (four points off 11 Gamecocks turnovers).

South Carolina, which has the nation’s second-stingiest scoring defense, has held its past two league opponents to 43 points each — one-point shy of the Gamecocks’ all-time low against an SEC team. USC limited Georgia to 42 points in 2010.

USC’s defense will be challenged by Tennessee, which owns one of the nation’s top 15 scoring offenses (76 ppg.).

The Gamecocks have beaten the Volunteers once in 43 games (1980), including both meetings last season. But the Gamecocks are heading into Knoxville on Thursday with some momentum.

“We’re feeling really good about ourselves,” Staley said. “You’re not just preparing for a team. You’re preparing for a tradition. You have to be on all cylinders when you go up against somebody like that.”

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