USC women win SEC title outright

South Carolina players, coaches and officials pose with the Southeastern Conference regular-season trophy, after winning the title for the third straight year, following an NCAA college basketball game against Georgia on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina won 61-51. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

COLUMBIA — It may have been the one from last season, but there was still a trophy presented at mid-court Thursday night after South Carolina officially claimed sole possession of its third consecutive SEC title. Dawn Staley just wished her team had played a little better to earn it.

Tiffany Mitchell scored 19, and A’ja Wilson added 16 as the third-ranked Gamecocks overcame a feisty Georgia team 61-51 at Colonial Life Arena. USC had clinched at least a share of its third straight league crowd in a victory Monday at Tennessee, but Thursday’s triumph meant they’d have the title all to themselves.

“It’s a big relief,” sad USC guard Khadijah Sessions, who had 13 points and six steals. “You don’t want to share first place with anyone. Last year sharing it really got under our skin. We didn’t want to have that feeling.”

A loss on the final day of the regular season forced the Gamecocks to share last season’s crown with Tennessee. Not this time — with Thursday’s victory, South Carolina (25-1, 13-0 SEC) maintained at least a four-game lead on the rest of the field with just three regular-season contests remaining.

“It’s bittersweet, I would say that,” Staley said. “At this point, you want to play your best basketball, and I didn’t think we displayed that tonight. But we did enough to get the job done. I don’t know what it is, I think our players are mentally drained at this point. But we’ve got to find a way to dig deep, and rest up, and close the season out the way we want to close it out.”

That mental fatigue has been evident in USC’s last three games, in which the Gamecocks have needed to grind out victories perhaps closer than fans are accustomed to. Georgia (19-7, 7-6) trailed by as many as 16 points in the third quarter, but rallied to close within five on a Marjorie Butler jumper with 2:29 left to play.

USC responded with one layup by Mitchell, and then another by Wilson after Sessions stripped the rebound of a missed Tina Roy 3-pointer away from Georgia’s Shacobia Barbee. “That’s the possession people remember,” said Bulldogs head coach Joni Taylor, “but it was so many possessions before that.”

Tiaria Griffin scored 24 to lead Georgia, which entered on a five-game winning streak, and statistically as the best defensive team in the SEC. The Bulldogs forced the Gamecocks to win ugly — USC shot just 37 percent from the field and made only 16 of 27 free throw attempts, but still made the plays when it had to.

“That’s what it’s going to take,” Mitchell said. “It’s going to be a lot of grind-out games. You’re not going to blow everybody out, especially in the SEC, by 20 points. (Staley) prepares us to be able to grind it out, so if that’s what we have to do, that’s what we do.”

Thursday, they did it with a depleted bench. Starting wing Asia Dozier missed her fifth consecutive game with a right hand injury suffered Jan. 31 at Texas A&M, while backup forward Jatarie White sat out with an illness. Reserve point guard Bianca Cuevas didn’t play due to what Staley termed a coach’s decision, so USC used just seven players in the game.

“Once we get (Dozier and White) back in the rotation, things should settle in a little bit,” said Staley, who added Cuevas would be back for Monday’s game at Alabama. “Our bigs are playing a lot more minutes than they normally play. Tiffany Mitchell is going to be fine, Khadijah is going to be fine. They practice at a certain level, so they’re conditioned to go the long haul.”

The outright league title clinched, the long haul toward another potential Final Four begins for the Gamecocks — who even after a less-than-perfect victory could still appreciate how far the program has come. USC joins Auburn and Tennessee as the lone SEC programs to win three or more consecutive crowns.

“I’m ecstatic that we’re able to do the unthinkable,” Staley said. “Nobody thought we’d be able to do what we did today, except the players and the parents who believed in our vision.”