- Associated Press - Sunday, February 2, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina reached 20 wins for a third-straight season and moved into solo first in the Southeastern Conference with its victory over Missouri on Sunday.

Now, the seventh-ranked Gamecocks hope the showing leads to another win, this one for the nation’s top recruit.

With 6-foot-4 prep star A’ja Wilson watching from behind the bench, South Carolina (20-2, 8-1) continued its run to the top of the SEC against the overmatched Tigers (14-8, 3-6).

Tiffany Mitchell had 20 points to lead six Gamecocks with double figure scoring in a game that was just as much about wooing Wilson. There were neon lime shirts with “There’s No Place Like Home” on the front, a video featuring football coach Steve Spurrier, baseball coach Chad Holbrook and women’s coach Dawn Staley delivering the same message and chants of “We want A’ja” from the students.

“Just the total atmosphere,” Staley said. “If you’re not moved by being in the gym, you probably don’t want to play high-level basketball.”

That’s what Staley’s been building since she arrived six seasons ago. The Gamecocks have won 25 games each of the past two seasons and seem on their way to bigger things this fall, taking over the top spot in the SEC after No. 17 Texas A&M; fell at No. 16 Vanderbilt 71-69 earlier Sunday.

South Carolina had been tied for first with the Aggies.

The Gamecocks - along with Wilson’s final four of Connecticut, Tennessee and North Carolina - expect to find out her decision sometime after her season is over at Heathwood Hall high, just a few miles from South Carolina’s campus.

Staley doesn’t believe the lofty position will bother her team.

“Our team, they do a tremendous job of staying in the moment,” she said. “I don’t think we get too far ahead. Mississippi State is on deck (Thursday). We’ll concentrate on them.

Missouri (14-8, 3-6) cut a 23-point halftime deficit to 73-60 in the final two minutes. But South Carolina proved too tall, too strong and too fast to overcome.

The Gamecocks 6-foot-4 forwards in Alaina Coates and Elem Ibiam combined for 23 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks.

Bri Kulas has 21 points to lead the Tigers.

It was the second straight contest the Gamecocks finished with six players in double figures. Khadijah Sessions and Coates had 13 points each, Aleighsa Welch and Asia Dozier 11 apiece and Ibiam 10.

“Coach told us things would open up for us because people would focus on our post players,” said Dozier, who had three of South Carolina’s five 3-pointers.

Missouri has lost five of its past six, four of those to ranked SEC opponents.

“You forgot about the other three ranked teams,” Tigers coach Robin Pingeton joked when asked about the stretch. “It really has been a tough stretch, but no one’s going to feel sorry for you. It’s the SEC.”

It was just the fifth time in 23 SEC seasons that South Carolina has posted 20 wins. This is the Gamecocks best SEC start ever and matches the 8-1 school record mark they posted in the defunct Metro Conference in 1987-88.

South Carolina has rebounded strongly from its lone SEC loss at Texas A&M; with three straight victories including a 99-70 win over Ole Miss this Thursday. Like that last game, South Carolina used a late charge in the opening half to take control.

The Gamecocks used a 19-1 run the final seven minutes or so to put away the Rebels. This time, it was a 23-6 run over the final 6:03 to take a 48-25 lead into the locker room.

Sessions scored all nine of her points, while the 6-4 Coates added four.

South Carolina made Kulas, the SEC’s second-leading scorer at 18.6 points a game coming in, work for her points. Sessions and Tiffany Mitchell chased Kulas all over the court in the first 20 minutes.

Kulas finished 8 of 17 from the floor with three 3-pointers and 10 rebounds

The Tigers made run at the start of the second half, outscoring South Carolina 15-5 to cut the lead to 53-40 on Kulas’ three-point play with 13:03 left. But Coates followed with an inside bucket, Mitchell hit a 3-pointer and South Carolina pushed its lead back over 20 points.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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