COLUMBIA — Zia Cooke used to play quarterback, a pigtailed bespectacled dynamo on the pee-wee football fields of her native Toledo. She knew a bad pass when she saw one.
She also played cornerback and safety, and she knew what she could intercept.
South Carolina’s freshman guard soared to pick off ninth-ranked Mississippi State’s last-chance inbound pass and the No. 1 Gamecocks won a thriller on Monday night 81-79. Down nine with 7:59 to go, their once-proud defense in tatters against the Bulldogs’ dazzling speed and athleticism in the paint, USC (18-1, 6-0 SEC) outscored MSU 19-8 to earn its biggest step yet toward an SEC regular-season championship.
“It took me back to football, actually,” said Cooke, who scored 13 points and snared six rebounds. “Once I heard her say, ‘Lob it up!,’ I knew I just had to go get it.”
USC is the SEC’s only unbeaten team in league play and doesn’t play Mississippi State again. There are 10 games to go, but the Gamecocks opened what’s essentially a two-game lead (including the tiebreaker) in the standings.
“They’re a group of young ladies that aren’t going to give up. You’re going to beat us, you’re going to beat us swinging,” USC coach Dawn Staley said, stressing the team’s positive attitude in the timeout when down nine. “We took it to another level.”
Senior Ty Harris scored a game-high 23 points, including USC’s final five, and stripped Chloe Bibby of the ball when the Gamecocks trailed by three, finishing a fast-break layup with under three minutes to play. Harris also gave USC the lead with a stop-and-pop jumper 40 seconds later, and the teams competed in a rebounding drill for the duration.
USC had the ball with the lead and 16 seconds to go after Aliyah Boston grabbed her 12th rebound. But the inbound pass, a weakness for USC the past two seasons, was batted around until Harris and Jordan Danberry each dove for it at midcourt.
The collision shook the national championship banner USC beat MSU for in 2017, but the foul was on Danberry, who picked up her fifth after cooking the Gamecocks for 16 points. Harris went to the line for two shots but missed the first, her first misfire from the line in SEC play this year.
Following a timeout, Harris aced her next shot, then USC set up with two fouls to give and eight seconds to play. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan used the first foul, then Aliyah Matharu set up to pass the ball in from the baseline.
Matharu had already ripped the Gamecocks with 10 points in six third-quarter minutes. This time, she spied JaMya Mingo-Young up top and threw an arch to her.
Cooke came down with it, and the win.
MSU (16-3, 4-1) had its way against USC’s interior, collecting 54 points in the paint. The Gamecocks had been marvelous all year at removing dribble-drives, but the Bulldogs did what they wanted.
“It’s something that’s been hard for us to guard for quite some time,” Staley said. “I thought we guarded it late in the fourth quarter.”
USC forced four jumpers (not layups) in the final 2:24. MSU missed all of them.
Sophomore forward Victaria Saxton finished the game on the bench with her right foot cocooned in an ice pack. Staley said she had an ankle injury but didn’t yet know the severity.
The Gamecocks rotate nine of an 11-woman roster. Losing one for any length of time will challenge their stamina.
The Gamecocks tip off at Georgia at 3 p.m. Sunday.