NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell's tough basket inside and layup off a steal in a span of nine seconds turned a tie game into a 61-57 No. 10/11 South Carolina victory over No. 16/19 Vanderbilt Sunday afternoon in Memorial Gymnasium. The Gamecocks (18-2, 6-1 SEC) led for most of the game, but the Commodores (16-4, 5-2 SEC) tied it up twice in the final three minutes, requiring heroics from the Gamecocks' leading scorer and timely free throw shooting down the stretch.
South Carolina's offense came from all sources in the first half, more by necessity than design as four Gamecocks spent significant time on the bench with two fouls, including three starters in Khadijah Sessions, Aleighsa Welch and Tiffany Mitchell. But the bench stepped up to fend off a 10-2 Vanderbilt run to take a 31-27 lead into the locker room.
The Gamecocks were clicking on offense early, despite a handful of turnovers, opening a 10-4 lead five minutes into the game. Elem Ibiam started and capped he first 10 points, hitting from the left block and in transition, respectively. The Commodores got within three several times, but each time the Gamecocks were able to prevent any more significant of a run. Leading 16-13 with 10 minutes left in the period after a Christina Foggie jumper, South Carolina went to Dozier, who showed good inside moves she has not had reason to display yet this season. She scored on the Gamecocks' next three possessions around a Jasmine Lister bucket to put South Carolina up 23-15 with under seven minutes to play.
From there, though, Vanderbilt launched the 10-2 run, aided by the second foul called on Mitchell with 4:38 left in the period. The Gamecocks broke up the Commodores' scoring as Wilka Montout fought for an offensive rebound and, a few passes later, hit a baseline jumper. Foggie hit on the next two trips for the Commodores with her transition layup tying the game at 25-25 with 2:34 to go until the break.
South Carolina called a timeout to regroup, and the pause seemed to reset things for both teams. Olivia Gaines drove the baseline to put the Gamecocks back on top 27-25. Tiffany Davis drew a charge on the next Vanderbilt possession, and the teams traded offensive fouls to give the ball back to South Carolina. Ibiam and Montout were fouled on back-to-back possessions and hit all four free throws. Foggie drove for a bucket late to make it a 31-27 Gamecock lead at the break.
Offense drove the early minutes of the second half. The Commodores took their first lead of the game, 38-37, on a Foggie 3-pointer from the right wing, but the Gamecocks went inside quickly in the next possession with Ibiam using great footwork to elude her defender and hit from the right block. After Mitchell stole the baseline out-of-bounds pass, Welch turned it into a transition layup for a 41-38 South Carolina lead five minutes into the period.
Coates and Welch worked hard on both ends to further stretch the lead to six at 47-41 three minutes later. At the end of a solid defensive stand by the Gamecocks, Jasmine Jenkins put back a missed shot to get the Commodores within a buck at 43-41. South Carolina turned it over on the next two possessions, but Coates and Welch stopped the Commodores on the other end. Welch put a move on her defender on the right block to double the Gamecocks' lead and following her second block in three Vanderbilt possessions, Coates finished off Welch's miss with a short jumper for a 47-41 edge with under 12 minutes to play.
Neither team could create sustained offense down the stretch, but the Commodores took advantage of Gamecock turnovers to cut into the lead. Jenkins hit a clutch jumper at the end of the shot clock, and Rayte'a Long came off the bench for four points to make it 53-51 with 4:04 on the clock. South Carolina was called for a three-second lane violation to give Vandy a chance to tie, and Jenkins delivered with a short baseline jumper with 3:15 to play.
South Carolina got in trouble on the other end, and head coach Dawn Staley called a timeout to set up a play for Welch. The junior forward calmly took a quick jumper rom the left elbow that put the Gamecocks back on top 55-53 with 2:45 to play. Neither team connected on its next possession, but Marqu'es Webb hit a pair of free throws to pull even again at 55-55 with 1:20 on the clock.
Late in the shot clock, Staley called timeout again to ensure her team got the best shot available. This time the Gamecocks went to Mitchell, who, while in trouble in the midst of defenders at the elbow, wormed through and scooped up a shot that found the bottom of the net with under a minute to play. Vanderbilt brought the ball up the court, where the Gamecock defense locked down. Mitchell picked Long's pocket and turned it into a layup on the other end for a 59-55 South Carolina lead with 32 seconds to play. The Commodores continued to battle but missed free throws kept the Gamecocks in front, and Sessions hit a pair with 11 seconds left to seal the victory.
South Carolina shot 54.0 percent from the field as three Gamecocks reached double figures and seven of the nine to see the court scored at least two points. Mitchell's 14 lead the way with Welch and Ibiam added 10 each. Ibiam missed out on a double-double with nine rebounds, while Coates delivered four blocks, including three in the second half alone. South Carolina scored 46 of its 61 total points in the paint.
Defensively, Mitchell swiped four steals and the Gamecocks allowed the Commodores to hit just 37.3 percent from the field. Vanderbilt hit just one 3-pointer in the game and only took five. Christina Foggie led all scorers with 23 points, but her 4-of-9 effort from the free throw line helped the Gamecocks stay in front.
South Carolina is back at home for a pair of games at Colonial Life Arena next week, beginning Thu., Jan. 30, against Ole Miss at 7 p.m.
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