Monday, January 18, 2016

Sessions' Late Free Throw Allows South Carolina to Survive Texas A&M

After a heavy morning rain, the clouds subsided and the sun came out in Columbia, South Carolina on Sunday, just in time for the Gamecocks to face the #15 Aggies of Texas A&M,  It was the third game of an eleven game gauntlet for South Carolina where they face nine ranked teams over the span, including finishing up with five ranked teams in a row.

Sun, Jan 10 - 83-58 win over #20 Missouri
Thu, Jan 14 - 73-62 win at #9 Kentucky
Sun, Jan 17 vs #15 Texas A&M
Thu, Jan 21 @ Auburn
Sun, Jan 24 @ #7 Mississippi State
Thu, Jan 28 vs Ole Miss
Sun, Jan 31 @ #15 Texas A&M
Thu, Feb 4 vs #9 Kentucky
Mon, Feb 8 vs #1 Connecticut
Thu, Feb 11 vs #20 Florida
Mon, Feb 15 @ #13 Tennessee

That's not a schedule for the faint of heart. The crowd of 15,406 that packed Colonial Life Arena for the 12:30 PM EST was ready for the third game in this brutal stretch of games for the #2 Gamecocks. So were the #15 Aggies.

Before the game started, South Carolina Junior Center Alaina Coates was awarded a ball for scoring her 1000th career point in the home win over Missouri a week ago.  Coates had a double double in the win over the Tigers.

Texas A&M, similar to #20 Missouri when they played the South Carolina, came out physical against the Gamecocks.  However, unlike the Tigers, the Aggies matched their physicality with athleticism and hot shooting.  Behind guard Courtney Walker's hot shooting, Texas A&M jumped out to a quick 13-6 lead.  

But South Carolina responded with a 10-0 run over the next five plus minutes. Tiffany Mitchell had four points and an assist during that spurt, which was capped by a Coates layup to put the Gamecocks up 16-13.  But Texas A&M responded with the last four points of the quarter to take a 17-16 lead. 

In the second quarter, the teams traded leads six times over the ten minute period.  After A'ja Wilson gave South Carolina a 26-25 lead, Wilson followed up with a block of a Courtney Williams layup attempt on the other end.  It appeared that the Gamecocks would run down the clock for the last shot in the second quarter, but Khadijah Sessions dribbled into traffic and Walker stole the ball and went the length of the court, laying the ball in before the buzzer sounded.  Texas A&M was up 27-26 at the half.

It was clearly a test of wills in the first half as Texas A&M collapsed on the South Carolina bigs, Wilson and Coates.  But Coach Dawn Staley continued to have the Gamecocks work the ball inside, knowing the high percentage shot is usually the best shot.  

So while the Aggies were able to bottle up Coates the whole game, Wilson became their go to player. That's due in part that the six foot four Wilson is so athletic, she can take the ball from the free throw line and drive to the basket.  She scored the Gamecocks last eight points in the first half.  And the game plan didn't change at the start of the second half as Wilson scored the first six points for the Gamecocks.   Her layup put South Carolina up 32-29.    Coates followed with a layup of her own and the score was 34-29.

But Texas A&M once again was resilient, as they responded with an 8-0 spurt.  Jordan Jones was responsible for six of those points, a three pointer and an old fashioned three point play, which gave the Aggies a 36-34 lead.  Chelsea Jennings capped the run with a layup and the Aggies led 38-34.  But Sessions responded with a layup of her own to cut the deficit to two to end the third quarter.

Sessions' layup would be the start of a 9-2 run for the Gamecocks.  Wilson and Mitchell would each hit two free throws and then Bianca Cuevas buried a three pointer to put South Carolina up 43-40.  A few minutes later, a Sessions layup would extend the lead to four, 46-42.   However, Jordan Jones would nail a three pointer and follow with a layup to put A&M back in front 47-46 with a little over six minutes left in the game.

But once again, the Gamecocks responded with another 9-2 spurt.  It started with a Cuevas three point play and ended with Wilson scoring the last three points on a layup, then later by hitting one of two free throws.  Colonial Life Arena was rocking as South Carolina went up 55-49 with two and a half minutes left in the game.

The Aggies would not quit, cutting the lead to two, 55-53 with Anriel Howard and Walker assisting each other on baskets.  However Wilson would respond with a layup and one.  She missed the free throw though and the Gamecocks were back up four 57-53 with 1:14 left in the game.

South Carolina would have chances to put the game away.  But Mitchell turned the ball over with about 30 seconds left in the game.  Walker would hit two free throws after on foul on Sessions to cut the deficit to two, 57-55 with twenty seconds left.  

After getting fouled, Mitchell had a chance to possibly put the game away but missed both free throw attempts.   A&M had a chance to tie with four seconds left but Jones missed a free throw of her own.  Jones hit the second and the score was 57-56.  The Aggies fouled Sessions, who missed the first free throw but hit the second to put the Gamecocks up two, 58-56 with three seconds left.  We now had the setup for one of the wildest endings to any basketball game this season.

Off the inbounds pass, the Aggies' Taylor Cooper was able to find Jennings on an outlet pass and she was able to lay the ball in to tie the game at 58 with one second.  But with the game tied, on the South Carolina inbounds pass Texas A&M's Shlonte Allen, who was seeing her first minutes of the game, inexplicably grabbed Sessions as she was trying to drive down the court.   Allen was called for the foul, and lucky for A&M's head coach Gary Blair, Allen wasn't called for an intentional foul, as she made no attempt to go after the ball.   The brain freeze on Allen resulted in two free throw attempts for Sessions to win the game with .8 seconds left.

However, Sessions added to the excitement of the finish by missing the first free throw.  With the crowd imploring her, Sessions hit the second free throw to put South Carolina up 59-58.  Mitchell would then steal the desperation inbounds pass at mid court and the Gamecocks held on for a truly exciting 59-58 victory.

Wilson was dominant the entire game for the Gamecocks and nearly had a triple double with twenty six points, eight rebounds and eight blocks.  Mitchell was the only other South Carolina player in double figures scoring with eleven points.  Cuevas had nine points, Sessions added eight and Coates was held to five points, though she had eleven rebounds.

The three guard attack for Texas A&M - Jones, Walker and Jennings each scored in double figures and combined for forty seven of the Aggies' fifty eight points.  The Aggies actually out-rebounded the Gamecocks 43-33, which included seventeen offensive rebounds.

The Gamecocks survived the third game of their gauntlet and now go on the road to face Auburn, a pretty respectable 12-6 team with a 2-3 conference record.  One of those wins was earlier in the conference season over #7 Kentucky.  

Such is the life in the SEC.  Even the unranked teams are pretty darn good.

Monday, January 11, 2016

South Carolina's Strong Defensive Start Dooms Missouri

The #20 Missouri Tigers had to be telling themselves yesterday, "If we can come out strong against South Carolina, we've got a chance to win."   In the Gamecocks last several games, especially against SEC conference foes Arkansas and Vanderbilt, #2 South Carolina struggled out of the gate.  Against the Razorbacks, the Gamecocks were tied at nine after one quarter.  Against the Commodores, the Gamecocks were tied at halftime and were losing late in the third quarter before rallying to win.

So it only seemed natural for the Tigers to feel a strong start would go a long way.  During warm-ups, my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew, noted that Missouri seemed to have a lot of players practicing, more than South Carolina (two bench players have the left the Gamecocks in the last week, leaving them with eleven players, still plenty given their talent).   Matthew and I would find out within a few minutes of game action why that was the case.

As for the Tigers hoping for a sluggish start from their opponent, too bad Dawn Staley had her Gamecocks ready from the get go.

The home crowd of 15,934 that packed Colonial Life Arena yesterday seemed to pump life into South Carolina from tip-off.   The Gamecocks height and athleticism on defense frustrated the Tigers immediately in the first quarter.  In the first seven and a half minutes of the first quarter, Missouri missed all thirteen shots from the field and turned the ball over four times.

Meanwhile, it was obvious what Missouri's game plan was on defense.  Physical defense that would have made Bruiser Flint proud.  They picked up seven fouls in the first five and half plus minutes in the game.  My color analyst, aka my older son Matthew, commented that we were going to see at least one Missouri player foul out and noted "So that's why they have so many players!"

Meanwhile, South Carolina was able to slog their way through Missouri's physical play to score enough points to make a difference early on.  Alaina Coates hit a three point play to put the Gamecocks up to stay 3-0.  Neither team would score for the next three plus minutes as the Gamecocks missed on five straight shots. Finally,  Khadijah Sessions would score on four free throws, sandwiching a three point play by Tiffany Mitchell and a free throw from Alaina Coates.  South Carolina was up 11-0 with four plus minutes left in the first quarter.

During this time, Missouri Freshman Sophie Cunningham "enamored" herself with the Gamecocks fans due to her physical play, especially one fan behind us in Section 115.  That fan kept yelling at the top of her lungs "SOOOPHIE!", among other things.

Missouri finally made a basket from Kayla Robinson nearly eight minutes into the first quarter. At the end of the first quarter, the score was 17-5.

The Tigers came out scoring in the second quarter with five quick points, including a three pointer by Maddie Stock to cut the lead to ten, 20-10.   But the Gamecocks would respond with a 13-2 run over the next nearly five minutes. Mitchell would lead the way, scoring six of those thirteen points.  Her two free throws would cap the run and make the score 33-12.   South Carolina would end up leading at halftime 35-17.  Missouri almost had as many fouls, SIXTEEN, as points, seventeen.

The start of the second half saw Missouri come out strong from the locker room.   The Tigers outscored the Gamecocks 12-4 over the first minute and a half.  Sophie Cunningham continued to ingratiate herself with the Gamecock faithful, scoring a basket to cut the lead to ten 39-29.

After a Coates basket that put South Carolina up twelve, Mitchell took over from there.  She scored the next seven straight points; a layup assisted by Tina Roy, a three pointer again assisted by Roy and then finally, she took matters in her own hands.  Mitchell stole the ball and drove in for a layup.  The Gamecocks were back up nineteen 48-29 and the game was over for all intensive purposes.

Except for the fan that was "enamored" with Sophie Cunningham.  Sophie would pick up her third foul midway through the third quarter, which ended with South Carolina up 56-34.  In the fourth quarter, she would quickly pick up fouls four and five which resulted in our fan yelling "BYE SOPHIE!!"

As Matt had predicted, a Missouri player fouled out.  In fact, two fouled out, as Jordan Frericks fouled out later.  Missouri would use THIRTEEN players in the game, as the entire team picked up thirty four fouls.  South Carolina took full advantage, hitting on thirty two of their forty three free throw attempts in the 83-58 drubbing of Missouri.

Mitchell led all scorers with nineteen points, shooting eight of nine from the free throw line. Coates and Wilson each had double doubles.  Coates had thirteen points and twelve rebounds, while Wilson had eleven points, eleven rebounds and six blocks.  Jatarie White came off the bench for the Gamecocks and added eleven points.
Missouri was held to thirty one percent from the field, including four of twenty one from beyond the arc, as South Carolina's overall team height and quickness were too much for the Tigers.  Only Ciera Porter was in double figures scoring for Missouri with ten points.

With the win, the Gamecocks are now 15-0 on the season and have matched the #22 undefeated men's team in record.   Both teams are now a combined 30-0 on the season, a truly remarkable fact given conference play for men's and women's basketball is already a week old.

The schedule doesn't get any easier for South Carolina.  They play another two ranked teams in a row.  First, a road match-up with #10 Kentucky and then a home game vs. #13 Texas A&M.  

But if they come out and play defense as well as they did against #20 Missouri, it won't matter who they play. The Gamecocks look primed for another SEC conference championship.

A strong start always helps.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Roy Drives The Gamecock Truck that Runs over Arkansas

South Carolina entered its SEC conference opener against Arkansas on Sunday ranked #2 and undefeated at 12-0.  Combined with the men's basketball team's 13-0 start and Columbia, South Carolina was home to the best combined women's and men's college basketball teams' record in the country at 25-0.  This was not lost on the 13,407 fans in attendance at Colonial Life Arena, which was pretty much the same size crowd for the men's win over Memphis the day prior.

While Dawn Staley's Gamecocks entered Sunday's contest humming along, the Razorbacks seemingly have found themselves having won their last two contests.  Before that though, Arkansas had lost eight of their eleven non conference games.  Of all the SEC teams, only LSU also had a losing record entering Sunday.

Jimmy Dykes is in his second season of head coaching Arkansas.   Dykes came to the Razorbacks from a college basketball analyst position with ESPN and the Arkansas job was his first ever women's basketball coaching position.  But prior to his solid work at ESPN (he was one of my favorite college basketball analysts along with Mark Adams),  Dykes had a long history of being an assistant coach under several different men's basketball college programs, including three times under Eddie Sutton, his former coach at Arkansas.  He even was a scout in the NBA for three years before joining ESPN.

In his first season, Dykes took the Razorbacks to just their second NCAA Tournament in eleven seasons and even won their first round game over Northwestern.  He brought in the #20 recruiting class in the country for his second season.  But his young team struggled in a tough non conference schedule and entered the game with a 5-8 record. 

As has been the case often with the Gamecocks this season, South Carolina started out slow and struggled from the field, missing on ten of their first twelve field goal attempts.  Tina Roy had several open looks early on from the outside but couldn't knock them down.  Her effort would be rewarded later though.

Arkansas worked hard on both ends of the court, especially defensively and actually had the lead at 9-7 before Khadijah Sessions tied the game with a layup. The Razorbacks actually made four of their first nine field goal attempts.  The first quarter ended in a nine all tie.

From there, everything went downhill for Dykes and the Razorbacks.  Downhill real fast.

The Gamecocks started the second quarter with nine straight points.  Tiffany Mitchell buried a three pointer, then Roy followed with one of her own.  After South Carolina forced a shot clock violation on Arkansas, Roy buried her second three pointer and just like that the score was 18-9 South Carolina.

Arkansas would get a three pointer of their own by Jordan Danberry to cut the lead to six, 18-12.  That was as close as Arkansas would get the rest of the way.

The Gamecocks would score the next eleven points as Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson would combine for eight of those points and Mitchell would add her second three pointer of the game.  South Carolina was now up 29-12 with 4:15 left in the quarter.

The Razorbacks best player, Jessica Jackson, ended the Gamecocks run with her second basket of the game to make the score 29-14.  Jackson would only score two more baskets the rest of the way.  Arkansas would score another basket on a Devin Gosper jumper, to cut the score to thirteen, 29-16.

From there, the Gamecocks would go on another run, this time a 15-2 spurt over the last three plus minutes of the second quarter.  South Carolina's reserve dynamo, Bianca Cuevas, led the spurt with eight points including knocking down a three to end the half with the Gamecocks up 44-18.

At the half, my friend and fellow Mid Majority 800 Games recap writer, Ian McCormick, joined me at my season tickets seats since my older son Matthew decided to stay at home.  Matt missed one heck of a second half start for the Gamecocks.

At the start of the second half, South Carolina picked up right where they left off, scoring the first sixteen points of the third quarter.  The Gamecocks hit on six of their first seven shots, including four three pointers, one by Sessions, and three by Roy.   Roy's fifth three pointer of the game gave South Carolina a 60-18 lead.

After Keiryn Swenson briefly ended the Gamecocks run with a basket, Roy responded with her sixth three pointer of the day, giving South Carolina a truly commanding 63-20 lead.  Dawn Staley was so impressed, she had to call timeout, perhaps to give her shooters a breather.

The timeout didn't cool off Roy.  She would nail her seventh three pointer later to cap the Gamecocks scoring for the third quarter.  After three quarters, South Carolina was up 73-25.

In the last ten minutes of the game, South Carolina made a concerted effort to get the ball to Coates and Wilson, who made the most of their scoring opportunities.  They combined to score nine of the Gamecocks twelve fourth quarter points.   South Carolina would again hold Arkansas under ten points for the fourth straight quarter, winning the game 85-32.  Now both South Carolina basketball teams were 13-0 on the season.

The Gamecocks had five players in double figures scoring and nearly a sixth with Sarah Imovbioh chipping in nine points.  Roy led all scorers with twenty one points, all on three pointers.  Wilson and Coates each notched double doubles.  Wilson had fourteen points and ten rebounds while Coates had eleven points and ten rebounds. Mitchell had twelve points and Cuevas added ten points.

Despite the wretched start, the Gamecocks shot fifty two percent from the field and forty seven percent from beyond the arc (11 of 23).  They had fifteen offensive rebounds and eighteen assists.   They held the Razorbacks to twenty four percent from the field and Arkansas only hit on one of their twelve three point attempts.  No player on the Razorbacks scored in double figures.  Jackson had nine points and Melissa Wolff had nine for Arkansas.  South Carolina forced eighteen Arkansas turnovers.  The only negative stat for the Gamecocks was that they were 8 of 13 from the charity stripe.  

Afterwards, Jimmy Dykes had to feel that his team was run over by a tractor trailer truck.  If he wanted to know the license plate number, it was South Carolina 23.

That's the jersey worn by Tina Roy.