Gamecocks hold off Eagles

dcloninger@thestate.comDecember 20, 2013 

They won the game.

There’s improvement needed, but at least there’s that to build on.

Tenth-ranked South Carolina outlasted Winthrop 69-61 on Friday, a 19-point halftime lead doing just enough to cover a rough second half where the Eagles never knew they were supposed to fly back home. Winthrop (6-3) cut the lead to four with 3:27 to play, but the Gamecocks got enough big shots -- including from their standard bugaboo, the free-throw line – to get back in the win column.

“I’m pleased with getting the win, any day, but there are opportunities for us to continue to learn,” coach Dawn Staley said. “Having to play without our starting point guard, I thought we held on and did some good things down the stretch. Obviously, the free-throw situation didn’t help our cause. I think we could have pulled away a little bit more.”

Staley wasn’t being a Grinch – she couldn’t be overjoyed because of the way USC was dominating the game, and then nearly let it get away. The Eagles are a strong squad, ranked 23rd in the mid-major ranks, but when USC was hitting 50 percent of its shots, the Gamecocks (10-1) should have comfortably won.

Their defense didn’t allow it. Winthrop forced 11 turnovers and scored 11 fast-break points in the second half and charged right at the Gamecocks’ forwards. USC melted against a smaller team and had it not been for eight 3-pointers, the result may have been different.

“I knew, just this year, it would be a lot different from a defensive standpoint,” Staley said. “We’re still trying to find our identity. They found areas and holes in our defense and made us pay for them.”

The Gamecocks knew they might struggle, since point guard Khadijah Sessions was out with a sprained ankle. That put redshirt freshman Tiffany Davis in the role, and while she sparkled early with a 3-pointer and a dive for a loose ball, her final line was merely OK.

In the most extensive action of her career, Davis scored three points with four rebounds, two assists, one steal and six turnovers. Staley blamed herself, saying she should have pulled Davis right before back-to-back turnovers in the first half, but complimented Davis’ overall performance. She will “probably” resume the role when USC hosts S.C. State on Sunday.

“She just has to find the clutch and gas, how to move the car,” Staley said. “I’d rather coach to slow her down rather than speed her up.”

“Beginning of the game, I was a little anxious,” Davis said. “As the game went on, I felt myself calm down, and run the team and be organized.”

Tiffany Mitchell scored 20 points to lead four in double figures, and stroked four 3-pointers. Fast becoming the team’s go-to scorer, Mitchell hit a jumper with 1:45 to go to make it 65-57. Aleighsa Welch, Asia Dozier, Mitchell and Olivia Gaines each hit enough free throws down the stretch to make the lead last.

Overall, a solid win against a good team, and one that got the Gamecocks back on the right side of the coin after losing their first game of the year to North Carolina three days ago. USC will finish a stretch of three games in five days on Sunday, then break for Christmas.

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WINTHROP (6-3)

Nunn 1-6 0-0 2, Calvert 4-5 2-2 11, McClanahan 7-20 4-4 19, Wright 0-2 0-0 0, Williams 8-19 3-4 19, Charles 1-2 0-0 2, Decheva 3-5 0-0 8, Vernon 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-59 9-10 61.

SOUTH CAROLINA (10-1)

Davis 1-5 0-0 3, Welch 4-7 6-11 14, Mitchell 7-9 2-5 20, Dozier 4-9 2-4 13, Ibiam 6-12 0-0 12, Gaines 0-1 2-2 2, Montout 1-2 0-0 2, Roy 0-1 0-0 0, Coates 1-2 1-2 3. Totals 24-48 13-24 69.

Halftime: South Carolina 37-23. 3-Point Goals: Winthrop 4-8 (Decheva 2-3, Calvert 1-1, McClanahan 1-3, Wright 0-1), South Carolina 8-19 (Mitchell 4-5, Dozier 3-7, Davis 1-5, Roy 0-1, Montout 0-1). Fouled Out: McClanahan. Rebounds: Winthrop 30 (Nunn 10), South Carolina 34 (Ibiam 9). Assists: Winthrop 13 (McClanahan 8), South Carolina 17 (Mitchell 7). Total Fouls: Winthrop 21, South Carolina 12. Attendance: 5,021.

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