USC Women Set SEC Standard On Senior Day

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By Sports Department

COLUMBIA, S.C. (USC SID) -- No. 14/13 South Carolina over-powered Florida late in the second half en route to a 67-56 victory Sunday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks opened the second half on an 8-2 run and held the Gators off at every charge, and a 14-5 surge over five minutes late in the second half sealed the school-record 11th SEC win of the season. The three team captains led the way, especially down the stretch. Ashley Bruner’s 16 points led the offense, while Ieasia Walker scored 14 points and tied her career high with eight assists. Aleighsa Welch posted her ninth double-double of the season with 14 points and 10 rebounds.

“We were getting good shots [in the first half] but just weren’t making them,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “I thought we were playing a little bit too quickly – at Florida’s pace. Once we calmed down, I thought we did a good job of making shots. We shot 48 percent in the second half, and that really helped us pull away at the end.”

The game was tight throughout the first half with neither team able to establish more than a two-possession advantage. Walker kept the Gamecocks afloat with her steady hand, scoring 12 of her 14 points in the opening stanza on 5-of-8 shooting, while the rest of the team struggled, hitting 25.0 percent from the field. The senior’s 20-minute effort included three of assists and three steals, while Welch snatched six of her 10 rebounds in the first half as well. Only a late surge by the Gamecocks on a Tiffany Mitchell drive and Welch’s free throws set the teams into the locker room tied at 25-25 at the break.

South Carolina exploded out of the locker room with a 6-0 run that had the Gators on their heels and calling a timeout less than two minutes into the period. The surge came by the Gamecocks’ trademarks of defense and rebounding. After a Florida turnover opened the half, Bruner hit a jumper off a feed from Walker. A Welch defensive rebound led to another Bruner bucket, and Mitchell’s rebound delivered a Walker driving layup for a 31-25 lead the forced the Gators to call timeout to regroup.

The Gators closed within three points twice, but the Gamecocks responded every time. Mitchell answered first with a 3 from the left corner to put South Carolina on top 37-31 with 14 minutes to play. When a Florida 7-2 surge brought them within 41-38, Bruner turned a putback into a traditional three-point play with 9:43 on the clock. Florida scored back-to-back buckets in the paint to make it a 44-42, but Khadijah Sessions hit a 3-pointer from the right corner then converted a turnover into a pair of free throws to put South Carolina up 49-42 with 7:28 to play.

Florida got a bucket from Jaterra Bonds to pull with five, but Bruner kicked off the decisive 14-5 surge with a pair of free throws. Walker’s steal turned into a transition layup for Elem Ibiam for a nine-point lead, the largest of the day for either team to that point. Bonds converted a traditional three-point play, but Mitchell swiped a steal and hit the free throws that resulted from her transition play. The Gators went back to Syndey Moss, who had been effective against the Gamecocks all game lone, and she hit a tough hook shot in the lane to make it a 55-49 South Carolina edge with 5:05 to play.

South Carolina proceeded to score the next eight points over a 2:30 span to completely wrest control of the outcome. The frontcourt was the muscle during the surge as Welch powered through defenders for a basket and a free throw to get the last 8-0 surge going. After a Florida turnover, Welch added another free throw to make it a 10-point advantage. Walker cleaned up her miss of the second attempt to keep the possession going, and Bruner hit a short jumper underneath to cap the extended possession. Welch battled for a Florida miss two empty possessions later and was fouled, hitting her two free throws to make it a commanding 63-49 lead with 2:19 on the clock as turnovers plagued the Gators in the waning minutes of the game, preventing any comeback.

South Carolina shot 41.5 percent from the field for the game and corralled 18 offensive rebounds among their 38 total boards. The Gamecocks turned 23 Gator turnovers into 22 points while handing out 13 assists, including a career-high tying eight from Walker, who also swiped five of the team’s 10 steals.

The Gamecocks are the No. 5 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament in Duluth, Ga. They will play their first game on Thu., March 7, at 2:30 p.m. against the winner of Wednesday’s first round game between the Nos. 11 and 12 seeds.

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