COLUMBIA, S.,C. (AP) — South Carolina didn’t waste time celebrating its latest victory over Mississippi, not with the bigger picture in sight.
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley told her players in the locker room Thursday soon after the 68-43 rout that the stage was set for them to win a second straight Southeastern Conference regular-season title at No. 3 Texas A&M this weekend.
“It is a championship game,” said Zia Cooke, who led South Carolina to its 13th straight win over Ole Miss, scoring 17 points. “We don’t want to change up anything we’ve been doing.”
Especially the locked-in defensive approach that helped South Carolina (19-3, 14-1 SEC) hold Mississippi (9-10, 3-10) to its worst shooting performance of the season.
Cooke, a sophomore, looks to continue the team’s championship run. “This was the goal,” she said. “That’s what all the hard work was for.”
The Gamecocks will face the one-loss Aggies in College Station, Texas, on Sunday with the winner hoisting the SEC trophy.
Cooke got the Gamecocks going quickly with 12 points in the first quarter. South Carolina steadily pulled away from the Rebels, who lost their third in a row, all to ranked opponents.
Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said her team was “manhandled” by the Gamecocks. The Rebels shot a combined 4 of 34 in the second and third quarters, shot a season-worst 26.2% and were outrebounded 43-28.
“We just weren’t courageous and it was disappointing,” she said.
South Carolina couldn’t afford a slip at this odd weekday start time — Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said earlier this week when she asked her operations people what was a good time to play, she was told early afternoon — with the Aggies looming.
Cooke came out on fire, scoring 10 of South Carolina’s first 12 points.
While she cooled down in the second quarter (she started 0 for 6), South Carolina’s defense did not as Mississippi struggled to find open shots. The Rebels finished the half missing their last 12 attempts and the Gamecocks held a 33-20 lead at halftime.
Shakira Austin scored a game-high 22 points for Mississippi.
LeLe Grissett added 12 points and Victaria Saxton 10 for the Gamecocks.
The game was originally set as the SEC opener for both teams on Dec. 31. That game, though, was postponed due to COVID-19 issues among the Rebels. Instead, Florida, which had been scheduled for Feb. 25, stepped in and lost 75-59 to the Gamecocks on New Year’s Eve.
THE BIG PICTURE
Mississippi: The Rebels have taken steps forward this season (they were last in the SEC at 0-16 last year) but still don’t have enough scoring punch to match the league’s best teams. Ole Miss has lost 10 or more SEC games in six consecutive seasons.
South Carolina: Perhaps due to the early weekday tipoff, nobody on the Gamecocks was particularly crisp in this one. Even Cooke struggled from the field, shooting 7 of 23. Aliyah Boston ended with seven points, her second straight game in single digits. South Carolina will have to be sharper if it hopes to beat the rising Aggies.
Staley was grateful for the win, but said the team must be more mindful of getting Boston involved. The 6-foot-5 sophomore took only four shots in the win over Ole Miss. The coach asked her team if it could keep winning that way. “We can’t,” she said. “It’s fool’s gold.”
SOUTH CAROLINA’S HOME SEASON
The Gamecocks wrapped up a 10-1 mark at home this year, playing in front of a crowd limited to 3,500 — and numerous cardboard cutouts — due to coronavirus restrictions. South Carolina came into this season leading the nation in women’s basketball attendance the past six seasons. Staley speculated that a 54-46 loss in December to No. 2 North Carolina State might’ve had a different outcome with 15,000 or more screaming Gamecocks fans on hand.
Mississippi ends the regular season against its fifth straight ranked opponent at No. 19 Kentucky on Sunday.
South Carolina plays at No. 3 Texas A&M on Sunday for the SEC regular-season title.
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