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COLUMBIA, S.C. – As if Missouri needed more obstacles to handle during this difficult stretch, the weather put one more in the Tigers' path.
The team bused to St. Louis when ice wouldn't allow them to fly out of Columbia, Missouri, to South Carolina's capital city. Instead of a late afternoon practice Saturday and a leisurely dinner, the Tigers didn't arrive at their hotel until after midnight.
Just what you need when facing your fourth ranked Southeastern Conference opponent in your past five games.
Still, coach Robin Pingeton was proud that her players didn't let their long travel day derail their strong second-half effort. South Carolina (20-2, 8-1 SEC) used a 23-6 run at the end of the opening half to build a 15-point lead and defeat the Tigers 78-62 on Sunday.
"I told them halftime that we can lay down and really embarrass ourselves or we can roll up our sleeves and go back to work and do what we're capable of doing," she said. "I thought the way we responded in the second half was very, very good."
Pingeton said South Carolina's size inside and accuracy on the perimeter put the Tigers (14-8, 3-6) in a hole they couldn't escape. But Missouri's felt like that a lot the past three weeks. They've fallen to Kentucky, LSU and Texas A&M — all ranked — in that stretch. They close this part of the schedule against LSU on Thursday before facing an unranked SEC opponent.
"As a staff, I think it's so important for you to have blinders on and not be evaluated just on this boxscore," Pingeton said. "I think that message has been pretty clear to our players."
South Carolina's message to the SEC about its staying power seems just as clear.
The Gamecocks reached 20 wins for a third-straight season and moved into solo first in the Southeastern Conference with its victory. And they did it with 6-foot-4 prep star A'ja Wilson watching from behind the bench.
Tiffany Mitchell had 20 points to lead six Gamecocks with double figure scoring in a game that was just as much about wooing Wilson. There were neon lime shirts with "There's No Place Like Home" on the front, a video featuring football coach Steve Spurrier, baseball coach Chad Holbrook and women's coach Dawn Staley delivering the same message and chants of "We want A'ja" from the students.
"Just the total atmosphere," Staley said. "If you're not moved by being in the gym, you probably don't want to play high-level basketball."
That's what Staley's been building since she arrived six seasons ago. The Gamecocks have won 25 games each of the past two seasons and seem on their way to bigger things this fall, taking over the top spot in the SEC after No. 17 Texas A&M fell at No. 16 Vanderbilt 71-69 earlier Sunday.
South Carolina had been tied for first with the Aggies.
The Gamecocks — along with the rest of Wilson's final four of Connecticut, Tennessee and North Carolina — expect to find out her decision sometime after her season is over at Heathwood Hall high, just a few miles from South Carolina's campus.
Staley doesn't believe the lofty position will bother her team.
"Our team, they do a tremendous job of staying in the moment," she said. "I don't think we get too far ahead. Mississippi State is on deck (Thursday). We'll concentrate on them.
Missouri cut a 23-point halftime deficit to 73-60 in the final two minutes. But South Carolina proved too tall, too strong and too fast to overcome.
The Gamecocks 6-foot-4 forwards in Alaina Coates and Elem Ibiam combined for 23 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks.
Bri Kulas has 21 points to lead the Tigers.
It was the second straight contest the Gamecocks finished with six players in double figures. Khadijah Sessions and Coates had 13 points each, Aleighsa Welch and Asia Dozier 11 apiece and Ibiam 10.
"Coach told us things would open up for us because people would focus on our post players," said Dozier, who had three of South Carolina's five 3-pointers.
Missouri has lost five of its past six, four of those to ranked SEC opponents.
"You forgot about the other three ranked teams," Pingeton joked when asked about the stretch. "It really has been a tough stretch, but no one's going to feel sorry for you. It's the SEC."