GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Zia Cooke knows things have changed for South Carolina. She and her teammates took the first step at changing them back at the SEC Tournament.
For most of Cooke’s two seasons, the seventh-ranked Gamecocks have been the Southeastern Conference’s dominant program. Last Sunday, though, it was No. 2 Texas A&M that claimed the regular season title after a showdown victory over South Carolina. It’s the Aggies who came to the league tournament a clear-cut favorite.
“Right now, we’re experiencing something new,” Cooke said. “We’re underdogs. No one likes that.”
Cooke scored 22 points, Aliyah Boston had 16 points and 13 rebounds, and No. 7 South Carolina withstood a late charge by Alabama for a 75-63 victory Friday night.
The Gamecocks (20-4) led by 27 halfway through the second quarter but saw most of that margin disappear down the stretch after Ariyah Copeland drew the Crimson Tide (16-9) within 66-59 with 5:07 to go.
But Destanni Henderson followed with her third 3-pointer and Cooke added a bucket to build back the double-digit edge as South Carolina advanced to the tournament semifinals for the sixth time in seven years.
Cooke says there’s an upside to being outside the spotlight, and she believes the Gamecocks have embraced that this week.
“While they’re asleep, you get a chance to wake them up,” she said. “That’s definitely our plans right now, wake the world up and let them know who we are.”
South Carolina will play No. 14 Tennessee on Saturday night for a spot in Sunday’s championship game after the Vols beat Mississippi 77-72 later Friday.
“At this time of year, whether we play Ole Miss or whether we play Tennessee, we’ve just got to make more plays,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.
South Carolina was running Alabama out of the building with a 12-0 start and led 39-12 before the Crimson Tide’s steady surge nearly caught the Gamecocks napping. Still, they finished things off for their 19th straight win over Alabama — including three this season.
Staley vowed her team, which faded in the third quarter of the 66-57 loss to Texas A&M, would show off an improved, efficient offense at the league tournament.
The Gamecocks paid attention — at least for 15 minutes. They hit five of their first six shots and led 39-12 after Henderson’s 3-pointer with 4:44 to go before the half.
They wouldn’t be the Gamecocks, though, without an offensive drought. That showed up the final four minutes before halftime as they missed their final five field goals and Alabama closed with a 14-3 burst to cut things to 42-26 at the break. The Crimson Tide kept closing into the final quarter.
“I’d rather be at this point of not playing our best and living to play another day,” Staley said.
Jordan Lewis scored 25 points, 17 coming in the third and fourth quarters, to lead Alabama. Copeland, who had 22 points and 10 boards in an 82-74 win over Missouri here Thursday night, added 17 points.
Alabama coach Kristy Curry wasn’t happy with the big, early margin. But she thought in the final 25 minutes, her team “showed who we are, what we’re about. We just dug ourselves a really big hole.”
Henderson finished with 18 points and Boston had her 13th game this season with double figure points and rebounds.
THE BIG PICTURE
Alabama: The Crimson Tide have had a breakout season and are projected to end a 22-year NCAA Tournament drought when the selections are announced March 15. With Lewis, Copeland and Jasmine Walker all significant players, Alabama will be a difficult out should they advance past the early rounds.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks are still trying to figure out their offense. South Carolina played a stellar 15 minutes (16-of-26 shooting) to take control. But they were just 14 of 36 the rest of way, relying on their defensive strength to hold off a major upset bid by Alabama.
Cooke said it took her a bit to get used to the atmosphere in Greenville and the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, about two hours north of campus. “We were very tired,” Cooke said. “The air here is crazy.”
South Carolina improved to 16-1 in SEC Tournament play since 2015. The Gamecocks are looking for their sixth tournament title in the past seven years.
Alabama appears headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.
South Carolina will face Tennessee in the SEC semis on Saturday.
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