No. 2 South Carolina opens with 70-61 victory
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Dawn Staley wanted a difficult test to start No. 2 South Carolina's season. Southern Cal gave the Gamecocks one they almost couldn't handle.
South Carolina (1-0) used a late 12-0 run to rally past the Trojans, 70-61 on Saturday night.
Alaina Coates had 18 points and 13 rebounds, defending Southeastern Conference player of the year Tiffany Mitchell scored 18 points and the Gamecocks won their 19th straight at home to kick off their highly anticipated season.
Much of the buzz comes from the SEC champs returning squad and their recruiting class, led by the country's No. 1 player in 6-foot-5 A'ja Wilson. While things were closer than much of the 10,057 people at Colonial Life Arena expected, Staley was pleased her players overcame their issues to win.
''This is a great game for us,'' said Staley, starting her seventh year as coach. ''Winning by 75 points, you're not going to learn a whole lot of lessons from it. Beating a team like USC, it opens eyes.''
Especially this bunch of Trojans (0-1), which was coming off their first-ever Pac 12 Conference tournament title and first NCAA appearance in eight years. They looked like they'd take down the Gamecocks after McKenzie Calvert's breakaway basket with 6:55 left put them ahead 53-52.
That's when South Carolina responded with a 12 straight points over the next three minutes to take control.
Coates, the SEC's freshman of the year and co-sixth player of the year last season, had her 11th career double-double.
Southern Cal coach Cynthia Cooper said her players did a stellar job holding Coates to that many points and rebounds. ''She runs the floor, she can finish with either hand and she gets that deep position that we tried to keep people from getting.''
Highly touted newcomer A'ja Wilson, last year's No. 1 college prospect, struggled in her debut with four points on 2-of-7 shooting. ''She played like a freshman,'' Staley said. ''Obviously, she didn't play as she's capable of, but she needs room to grow.''
Calvert and Kaneisha Horn had 11 points to lead Southern Cal.
The opener was supposed to an affirmation of the enormous preseason hype and an early victory lap for the defending Southeastern Conference champions. Instead, Southern Cal cut off the middle and made it difficult for the Gamecocks' inside players to operate.
Wilson, the country's top prospect who joined South Carolina over Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee, scored her team's first basket, but couldn't find any rhythm in her first college game.
The Gamecocks finally looked like they'd gotten going with an 11-2 run in the final five minutes of the first half to lead 27-18 behind Coates' four baskets. But Southern Cal coach Cynthia Cooper called a late timeout to settle her squad.
The Trojans rallied back, scoring the final six points of the half to cut South Carolina's lead to 27-24 at the break.
Coates and all-SEC first-teamer Aleighsa Welch helped the Gamecocks build a 39-32 lead early in the second period. Again, Southern Cal pushed back. The large crowd at Colonial Life Arena was silent when Calvert broke free for the go-ahead layup.
The mood lightened considerably when the Gamecocks went on their game-breaking run.
South Carolina finished with 19 turnovers, six coming by Mitchell. The Gamecocks had averaged just 14 a game last season. Staley said she can live with them - for now. ''We're not playing for November,'' she said. ''We're playing for March and April.''
Southern Cal three starting guards - Jordan Adams, Courtney Jaco and Brianna Barrett - combined to shoot 5 for 23 for 16 total points. Those outside misses were a big reason the Trojans couldn't finish the upset.
Southern Cal: The Trojans were back in the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2005-06, winning their first Pac 12 Conference tournament title.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have been ranked in the top 10 for the past 12 polls, their longest streak since a 13-week run in the top 10 from Jan. 22, 1980 through Dec. 16, 1980 when South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was 10.
Southern Cal is at Davidson on Monday night
South Carolina plays rival Clemson on Thursday night.