Published February 23, 2014
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Florida coach Amanda Butler saw the defense she wanted from her team against high-scoring No. 4 South Carolina. Things were far different, however, on offense.
While the Gators' swarmed the taller South Carolina front line, they couldn't find the basket themselves going for long stretches without points in a 69-55 loss Sunday.
Jetera Bonds scored 20 points on nine field goals. Her teammates combined for just 10 field goals as the Gators lost for the fourth time in five games. They had separate first-half stretches with 11 and nine straight missed shots.
"We didn't do a good job of showing a lot of grit and toughness and confidence in the paint and making the plays we needed," Butler said. "I think Jetera really embodied the game plan we wanted to bring to the table today, but we didn't have it uniformly across the board."
Bonds acknowledged the difficulty of facing the Gamecocks, who feature 6-foot-4 post players Alaina Coates and Elem Ibiam. Florida has one player over six-foot in Lily Svete.
Coates had five blocks and Ibiam three.
"They're supposed to block the shots," Bonds said. "You can't be scared or timid going in the paint or you're going to miss the shot every single time.
South Carolina's win, combined with No. 15 Kentucky's 83-74 victory over 16th-ranked Texas A&M, clinched a share of the Southeastern Conference title.
"This is exciting," forward Aleighsa Welch said. "Now, we've got to take care of business."
Staley and the Gamecocks (25-2, 13-1 SEC) have done that much of the season, including against the pesky Gators (17-10, 7-7) in front of the second largest crowd (10,547) ever to watch women's basketball at 11-year-old Colonial Life Arena.
Tiffany Mitchell scored 20 points, Alaina Coates had 16 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Gamecocks.
Staley, the basketball Hall of Famer, reflected on the title few believed the program would win when she arrived from Temple six years ago. "It feels great to do what most people thought we could never get done here at South Carolina," she said.
The Gamecocks had never won more than 11 SEC games in a season. Staley's first team in 2008-09 won just two, but entered this year with consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
Staley hoped her players would enjoy the moment, but is confident they understand there's more left to achieve over the next few weeks. "We want to be greedy at this point," she said. "We want to win it all, as much as we can win."
Mitchell took a knee to the thigh in the opening period and looked barely able to move before trainers helped her off the court. While the injury was not serious, Mitchell clearly looked out of synch early on against Florida's swarming pressure: She was only 2 of 5 from the floor for six points and had six of the Gamecocks' 13 turnovers in the first half.
But she turned things around after the break with 14 points and just one miscue to lead South Carolina.
"Tiff's a player," Staley said. "She's not going to play perfect basketball every time out. When you can handle adversity like she did in the first half and play like she did in the second, that's when you know she knows how to turn the page and put us on her back."
And the Gamecocks needed all the support they could get against Florida.
They led by 16 points midway through the second period until Florida rallied with an 13-3 run that cut things to 49-43 with 5:19 left. But Mitchell followed with a open 3-pointer from the left corner before Welch and Coates had inside baskets to restore the double-digit lead.
Once more the Gators fought back to trim the lead to 58-51 and again Mitchell's jumper and foul shot put the Gamecocks ahead 61-51.
"I just tried to settle down. I was playing too fast early on with a lot of unnecessary turnovers," said Mitchell, who wore ice bags around both knees. "I just had to stay in it and get myself going."
Mitchell had six points as the Gamecocks opened the second half with 16-8 run to lead 46-30 before Florida rallied back.
The arena was decorated in pink as South Carolina play in honor of those who who've fought or are batting breast cancer. Those include Gamecock assistant Nikki McCray, who was diagnosed with the disease in November and is undergoing treatment. She has not missed a game with the team due to her illness.
"We knew this day was about her," Mitchell said of McCray.