Los Angeles – No. 2 South Carolina used a late-game run to escape tenacious UCLA Sunday, 68-65.
Tiffany Mitchell notched 17 points for the Gamecocks, including six in the final 3:17 to seal the win for her team, which was tested by their hosts from tipoff. Tina Roy also had 17 points for South Carolina, and Alaina Coates added 12 points and 12 rebounds.
The Bruins used zone defense to limit passes inside to center Coates and forward A’ja Wilson, which caused the Gamecocks to turn the ball over repeatedly. They kept the rebounding advantage, outpacing UCLA easily. But the visitors had 14 turnovers at halftime and 21 for the game.
There had been nine lead changes and nine ties by the end of the third quarter, and the two teams spent most of the fourth period knotted up. But a Wilson mid-air tip-in at the 3:50 mark put South Carolina up 60-58. Mitchell and UCLA guard Nirra Fields traded layups, and then Mitchell scored another. Coates followed up with a bucket to put the Gamecocks up 66-60.
Coates was whistled for a flagrant foul, and Bruin Jordin Canada made both free throws. But a Fields foul then put Mitchell at the line, where she sunk two. A three-point shot at the buzzer by Kacy Swain gave UCLA the last points of the contest.
Canada finished with 21 points, and Fields posted 17.
Though All-American Mitchell called South Carolina’s play uncharacteristic, she said they weren’t surprised by the Bruins’ aggression.
“I kind of knew how they were going to play me because I usually draw a lot of focus from other teams,” she said. “I came out too early trying to force things and had two turnovers early that were unforced; it was me trying to create something when I didn’t really have to.”
“I needed to get in the flow of the game more, let the game come to me. So I sat back and got my teammates involved, and then I attacked.”
Gamecock coach Dawn Staley gave credit to UCLA.
“They’re a good basketball team – they’re a really good basketball team,” she said. “I don’t know if (people) were expecting us to just come in here and just roll them over because we’re ranked #2 in the country. But this beautiful game that women play, everybody’s got a shot at winning.”
Staley said the difference was how her team responded down the stretch.
“I think what it came down to was us being able to make plays at the end of the basketball game,” she said. “You saw a team that has played in some tough games, and we play in a tough league that prepares us for situations like this. I was really proud of our team the way they responded even playing uncharacteristic of them, especially from a turnover standpoint.”
UCLA coach Cori Close said she was proud of her team’s performance, but added that the loss has a valuable lesson.
“I told our team that I believe in them. I knew they could play at this level, but they proved something to themselves today,” Close said. “They proved it all in the offseason the way they prepared. They prepared to put themselves in a position to compete with the nation’s elite, and I’m really proud of them.”
“But at the same time, what got exposed was the very small differences between being good and being great. There’s a very small margin of error. There were some minutes that they played to who they are and then we lost that for just a second, and that’s the difference. I said, let this feeling teach your hearts to close the gap between good and great.”
Close said UCLA’s ability to create turnovers and then score off of them were critical, and they forced them to use their versatility.
“Turnovers were the stat that kept us in the game,” Close said. “We have energy, we have versatility – especially playing through all the foul trouble. We were playing some line ups that we have never practiced.”
Staley said South Carolina is still solidifying its identity this season, while retaining the characteristics that vaulted them into elite status last year.
“You see any great team out there, they just have a different kind of pace about them from an offensive standpoint, whether they’re taking the ball out of bounds, rebounding or pushing,” Staley said. “I’d like our team to play less on train tracks and more on playing off what the defense gives us – especially early in the shot clock.”
The Gamecocks next travel to Hawaii, where they’ll play in the Rainbow Wahine Showdown against Arizona State, Cal State Bakersfield and Hawaii. The Bruins travel to the Bahamas, where they’ll take on Louisiana Tech in the Junkanoo Jam.