COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was pleased with her team’s victory over Florida on Sunday.
She and the fourth-ranked Gamecocks were much happier about an hour later when they clinched a tie for their first-ever Southeastern Conference title.
South Carolina earned its share when No. 15 Kentucky defeated 16th-ranked Texas A&M 83-74. The Gamecocks watched in their locker room and celebrated Kentucky’s 83-74 win over Texas A&M. South Carolina can win the crown outright with a victory at home over Georgia on Thursday night.
“This is exciting,” forward Aleighsa Welch said. “Now, we’ve got to take care of business.”
Staley and the Gamecocks (25-2, 13-1 SEC) have done that much of the season, including against the pesky Gators (17-10, 7-7) in front of the second largest crowd (10,547) ever to watch women’s basketball at 11-year-old Colonial Life Arena.
Tiffany Mitchell scored 20 points, Alaina Coates had 16 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Gamecocks.
Staley, the basketball Hall of Famer, reflected on the title few believed the program would win when she arrived from Temple six years ago. “It feels great to do what most people thought we could never get done here at South Carolina,” she said.
Staley hoped her players would enjoy the moment, but is confident they understand there’s more left to achieve over the next few weeks. “We want to be greedy at this point,” she said. “We want to win it all, as much as we can win.”
Mitchell took a knee to the thigh in the opening period and looked barely able to move before trainers helped her off the court. While the injury was not serious, Mitchell clearly looked out of synch early on against Florida’s swarming pressure: She was only 2 of 5 from the floor for six points and had six of the Gamecocks’ 13 turnovers in the first half.
But she turned things around after the break with 14 points and just one miscue to lead South Carolina.
“Tiff’s a player,” Staley said. “She’s not going to play perfect basketball every time out. When you can handle adversity like she did in the first half and play like she did in the second, that’s when you know she knows how to turn the page and put us on her back.”
And the Gamecocks needed the support against pesky Florida.
They led by 16 points midway through the second period until Florida rallied with an 13-3 run that cut things to 49-43 with 5:19 left. But Mitchell followed with a open 3-pointer from the left corner before Welch and Coates had inside baskets to restore the double-digit lead.
Once more the Gators fought back to trim the lead to 58-51 and again Mitchell’s jumper and foul shot put the Gamecocks ahead 61-51.