COLUMBIA — The three-year home winning streak is over. The quest for three years atop the SEC continues.
At times Thursday night, No. 2 South Carolina looked like a team still fighting off the remaining vestiges of its first loss of the season. But Tiffany Mitchell hit jumpers at crucial times, and Alaina Coates controlled the paint in the fourth quarter as the Gamecocks defeated No. 16 Florida, 86-71, at Colonial Life Arena.
It was USC’s first game since top-ranked Connecticut ended the Gamecocks’ 45-game home winning streak, and the hangover occasionally seemed evident in the stands as well as on the court. But Florida never got closer than eight in the fourth quarter, as USC won its 24th straight home SEC game, and took another step toward its third consecutive league crown.
South Carolina’s victory Thursday, combined with 11th-ranked Mississippi State’s 64-58 loss at No. 15 Texas A&M, means the Gamecocks (23-1, 11-0 SEC) can clinch a share of their third straight conference title Monday at No. 25 Tennessee. USC is bidding to become just the third program to win three straight SEC titles, joining Auburn and Tennessee.
“This team has been through a Connecticut loss, and we know what that feels like,” said head coach Dawn Staley. “Usually we get back and get focused on the task at hand, and that’s what we did. But there is some residual feelings of losing, and how we lost, and wanting to play better. That’s natural. But our players know that this is the league we want to win.”
Mitchell finished with 19, while Coates rebounded from a two-point effort against the Huskies to finish with 14 points and 11 rebounds, her 13th double-double of the season. A’ja Wilson scored 13 despite nursing a lower left leg bruised against Connecticut, and redshirt freshman Doniyah Cliney added 10 in her first career start.
“We knew this would be a team that takes pride in the way they play, and protects their home court,” said Florida coach Amanda Butler. “We expected their best shot. We certainly didn’t come in here thinking they were going to have their tail between their legs, by any means.”
The Gators (19-5, 7-4) enjoying one of the best campaigns in school history despite being picked to finish 12th in league in the preseason, fell down by as many as 19 after the Gamecocks scored the first 16 points of the second quarter. But behind their high-tempo offense and pressing defense, they clawed back within eight with 7:19 left in the game.
“We didn’t handle their pressure up front as well as we’d have liked to handle it,” said Staley, whose team turned the ball over a season-high 22 times. “Part of it is, no one has ever played us full-court pressure, so it’s unfamiliar to us. ... We knew we’d turn it over some, we knew they’d turn it over some. When it got down to it, we knew we’d get fouled a lot as well. I liked our chances.”
Playing its third straight game without starting wing Asia Dozier, out with a right hand injury suffered Jan. 31 at Texas A&M, USC turned to Cliney, who drained her first shot attempt, a 3 from the corner. She shot 3 of 5 in 19 minutes, also committing a team-high seven turnovers against Florida’s press.
“I have a big role to play now that we’re down a player, Asia Dozier,” she said. “The last couple of practices, I’ve been working on my game and trying to avoid every little mistake that I can. It’s my time now.”
Staley lists Dozier’s status as day-to-day. Cliney missed the first half of this season after undergoing hand surgery in November. “We’re really hard on her in practice, because she doesn’t have any game experience,” Staley said. “She took the hit, and put herself in position to even get the nod to start. She’s been doing some great things. She had some turnovers today, but that’s just experience.”