Of course, I had no idea until Ian McCormick, the ubiquitous writer for Mid Majority and my seat mate for last night's twin bill, told me that the #19 ranked USC women's team was hosting #1 Stanford in the second game of the doubleheader at 7:30 PM. Doubleheader? It doesn't say that on the ticket (and it doesn't). Well, I wasn't going to pass up watching the second game as well.
In the first game, the men's team faced a Mountaineers team that so far this season had won just one game vs. a Division I team (UMKC). However, with the exception of the Jacksonville game, the Gamecocks have struggled to a 4-2 home record going into last night's game. And last night turned out to be no exception.
Before the game started, Frank Martin came onto the court with a microphone talking about the tragedy in Newtown and imploring our country's leaders to find a solution so that this never occurs again. He then led the crowd in a moment of silence. Later on, before the women's game, Dawn Staley also did the same thing.
Early on, it looked like South Carolina was going to blow Appalachian State out of the arena. R.J. Slawson, seldom a scoring threat, scored five of the first seven Gamecocks' points. Then Eric Smith scored four straight points. South Carolina was out to an early 11-2 lead.
But the Gamecocks' couldn't extend the lead. The Mountaineers continued to hang around keeping the score within single digits. After a Mindaugas Kacinas basket finally put the Gamecocks up by double digits, 29-18 with six and a half minutes left, Appalachian State called a thirty second timeout.
South Carolina shot fifty percent from the floor in the first half, but so did Appalachian State from two point field goal range. The only thing that kept the Mountaineers from leading at halftime was that they were shooting 0 of 6 from three point range as opposed to the Gamecocks 4 of 9 from beyond the arc.
But behind crowd favorite Bruce Ellington, South Carolina responded with a 15-5 spurt over the next five minutes to jump back out in front 52-45. Ellington had five points in that spurt. This would be Ellington's last game until after the Outback Bowl on January 1st.
Appalachian State once again responded with a 9-2 spurt as Neal, Jamaal Trice and Tab Hamilton each scored three points to tie the game at 54 with a little less than seven and a half minutes left. Again, the crowd grew restless with South Carolina's play. Once again, the fans would be seeing another close home game.
Then Lakeem Jackson and LaShay Page took it upon themselves to put South Carolina ahead to stay. Jackson and Page combined to score the next eleven Gamecocks' points. After Mindaugas Kacinas capped the 13-4 spurt with a jumper, South Carolina was ahead 67-58 with two and a half minutes left in the game.
However, Appalachian State was not going down without a fight. The Mountaineers started whittling away the Gamecocks' lead. After Jackson was called for an inbounds violation, Canty tipped in a Neal miss and Appalachian State was down two, 71-69 with twenty two seconds left in the game.
Jackson led the Gamecocks with sixteen points, Kacinas added twelve points and three blocks and Brenton Williams had a "quiet' eleven points. Smith had a very solid game with nine assists and only two turnovers. Canty, Neal and Baskin each had sixteen points for the Mountaineers.
The crowd started filling up at the end of the men's game and during intermission. It was clear that the women's game was the big game of the night. The #1 ranked Cardinal playing on the home court of the #19 ranked Gamecocks.
Dawn Staley, an Olympian and considered one of the fifteen greatest women's basketball players of all time, took over as head coach of the South Carolina women's team in 2008. Previously, she had been the head coach of Temple, where she led the Owls to six NCAA Tournament appearances in eight years. The Gamecocks improved in each of their first four seasons under Staley, including last season's 25-10 record which included a NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance.
Staley's Gamecocks came into the game undefeated at 10-0. They are an excellent defensive team; first in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing only forty five points per game, first in field goal percentage defense at 31.8 percent and first in rebounding margin at +16.8 per game.
Meanwhile the Cardinal came in as the top scoring team in the PAC 12 at seventy eight points per game, shooting 51.8 percent from the field, also tops in the PAC 12. Stanford also can play defense, first in the PAC 12 at 31.6 percent field goal percentage defense and second in the PAC 12 in rebounding margin at +14.6 rebounds per game.
By the time the game started, the crowd at Colonial Life Arena had filled in. Next to the men's game vs. Clemson, it was the largest crowd I had seen at Colonial life this season. And the 8,118 fans in attendance were fully invested in the game from start till finish.
At the under twelve minute media timeout, the score was only 8-5 Stanford. South Carolina didn't score their third basket until nine minutes left in the first half. The Cardinal then went scoreless for five minutes which allowed the Gamecocks to briefly take a one point lead, 15-14 on a jumper by Tiffany Mitchell.
The Cardinal responded with an 8-2 spurt and held the Gamecocks to one basket over the next five minutes. Chiney Ogwumike scored six straight points in that spurt. Stanford would enter halftime leading 25-19. Considering South Carolina missed on a lot of good first half scoring opportunities and were only down six to the #1 ranked team in the country, the Gamecocks were in good shape.
The second half saw South Carolina hold Stanford to one of six shooting in the first four plus minutes. This resulted in the Gamecocks cutting the lead to one point, 26-25 with fifteen and a half minutes left.
But Ogwumike, Amber Orrange and Toni Kokenis would score the Cardinal's next fourteen points and Stanford would continue to lead 40-39 with about five minutes left.
However, off a timeout, Ieasia Walker would hit a three pointer to put South Carolina in the lead for the first time since four minutes left in the first half. The Colonial Life Arena erupted and Stanford was now officially on the ropes as the Gamecocks led 42-40 with four and a half minutes left in the game.
After Orrange tied the game at forty two, Sancheon White gave South Carolina the lead back with a jumper. But a three point play by Ogwumike put Stanford back up 45-44 with two minutes left. The teams were going back and forth with the leads. Ian and I were witnessing the best game we had seen all year so far. It was certainly the most electric a Colonial Life Arena crowd had been for a basketball game all season.
Mikala Ruef then hit a tough layup to put Stanford up two again, 47-45 with fifty four seconds left. Walker was fouled on a layup attempt to the basket. With a chance to tie, Walker missed the first free throw and then hit the second. Stanford was now up one 47-46 with only twenty six seconds left. If South Carolina couldn't steal the ball, then they would have to foul.
On the inbounds pass, Kokenis got the ball but appeared to run with the ball before she started dribbling. But much to the chagrin and loud displeasure of the fans, no traveling call was made. Kokenis was subsequently fouled and she hit both free throws. Stanford was now up 49-46 with twenty three seconds left.
It never came. Kokenis got the inbounds pass and was fouled. She sank two more free throws, giving her a perfect 7 of 7 from the line. Stanford earned a hard fought 53-49 win.
For Stanford, Ogwumike led all scorers with twenty one points, added fifteen rebounds and had four blocks. Kokenis added fifteen points, while Orrange had eleven points. Joslyn Tinkle added seven blocks for the Cardinal.
Though the fans left disappointed, they gave the Gamecocks a good ovation after the game was finished. Dawn Staley's team nearly defeated the best team in the nation. More importantly, it showed that if given the proper amount of time to develop a winning program, the fans will come out and support the team.
I am sure Frank Martin was taking in the game and coming to the same conclusion. The fans and administration just need to give him the same amount of time. Given his track record, the results mostly likely will be the same.