South Carolina’s No. 1 Women rout Mississippi, reach SEC Finals
GREENVILLE, SC (AP) — Coach Dawn Staley nodded as reserve Laeticia Amihere spoke about the versatility of No. 1 South Carolina.
The undefeated Gamecocks are certainly talented with two-time SEC Player of the Year Aliyah Boston and leading scorer Zia Cooke. They’re also deep with players like Victaria Saxton and Amihere filling major roles, helping South Carolina reach the Conference Tournament Finals for the eighth time in nine seasons.
“I think our bench is a huge asset to our team,” said Amihere, who scored a game-high 17 points in an 80-51 win over Mississippi in Saturday’s SEC Semifinals.
Boston recorded its 80th career double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Cooke had 14 points and Brea Beal, another starter, 13 for Gamecocks (31-0) who won their 37th straight game.
They will face No. 4 LSU or Tennessee for the conference championship on Sunday.
South Carolina needed a big escape at Mississippi two weeks ago, trailing late before forcing overtime and keeping its perfect season intact with a 64-57 win.
The Gamecocks got the drama out of this one early with Cooke and Boston getting four points apiece and Beal adding a three-point play for a 13-4 lead in less than seven minutes. They extended the lead to 15 points at halftime and were ahead by at least 20 points for most of the last two quarters.
“When they play like that, believe me, they’re hard to beat,” Mississippi coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said.
It was the second straight year that the Mississippi tournament ended in the semi-finals by the Gamecocks.
Boston, which surpassed Sheila Foster’s school career double-double mark earlier this season, broke Foster’s career rebound record of 1,427 that stood for more than four decades. Boston now has 1,432 in four seasons.
South Carolina will be looking for its seventh tournament crown since 2015, as well as some recovery from its last loss in the finals of this event a year ago against Kentucky.
South Carolina’s defense, third in Division I in holding its opponents to 50.9 points per game, was in the spotlight. The Rebels managed just two of their first 13 shots and had eight of their attempts blocked in the first 20 minutes.
Mississippi couldn’t find an answer and tied their fewest points in a game this season.
Leading scorer Angel Baker, averaging 15.3 points to finish, was held to nine on 4 of 15 shots. Madison Scott led the Rebels with 15 points,
Kamilla Cardoso also had a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Cooke finished with 14 points and Beal 13 for the Gamecocks.
Staley had no issues with his squad regarding playing time, all focused on the ultimate goal of winning. “I don’t think any decision to play them or not play them hurts their confidence,” she said. “It’s because we communicate extremely well.”
Mississippi: The Rebels will make their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance after reaching the event for the first time in 15 years in 2022. Seventh-seeded Mississippi was upset in the first round by South Dakota.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks are definitely not one of those teams that turn around in the conference tournament with an eye on the NCAA. They showed versatility on offense — Saxton had 19 points to lead South Carolina on Friday and Amihere’s performance here — and a lockdown mentality on defense.
South Carolina starting goaltender Kierra Fletcher made it to the locker room in the first quarter after falling and grabbing her leg. Soon, however, Fletcher sprinted to the bench and played briefly before Staley decided to take her out as a precaution. Fletcher, a transfer graduate from Georgia Tech, has started 28 games this season.
Mississippi will await its NCAA tournament destination.
South Carolina will face No. 4 LSU or Tennessee for the SEC Tournament title on Sunday.
AP Women’s College Basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https:/ /twitter.com/AP_Top25
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