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.

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