Welch's 12 before injury lead No. 1 Gamecocks
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Concern for an injured teammate quickly turned to determination not to lose for No. 1 South Carolina.
The Gamecocks had built a 20-point lead over Auburn behind the perfect shooting of Aleighsa Welch. But when the senior leader left for the hospital with a neck sprain midway through the second half, the Tigers took advantage of the stunned defending Southeastern Conference champions to cut the margin to 48-40.
''Our first thought was we just wanted to make sure she was okay,'' Alaina Coates said. ''Whenever you see a teammate go down, it's always motivation to win the game.''
That's what South Carolina did, answering with a 12-2 run to restore control in a 77-58 victory Friday night in its Southeastern Conference opener.
Coates had 11 points and 14 rebounds, her seventh double-double this season. Freshman A'ja Wilson also had 12 points and 10 rebounds, her third career game with double figure scoring and rebounding.
The Gamecocks (13-0, 1-0) matched the program's best-ever win streak, set in the 1985-86 season.
Welch, an all-SEC team member last season, had hit all six of her shots in what looked like a blowout from the start. She came down hard against a basket post, lying on the court for several minutes. The school said she had a neck sprain and went to the hospital for X-rays as a precaution.
Welch had begged to stick around to watch the rest of the game, attended by a season high 16,465 fans. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley did not have an update on Welch's condition or if she'd accompany the team to LSU for Sunday's game.
''Aleighsa's tough. If she can play, she'll play. If not, hard to replace, but certainly, we've got to try,'' Staley said.
Auburn (9-5, 0-1) closed to 48-40 on Hasina Mohammad's basket with 11:42 left. South Carolina eventually built the lead to 23 points.
The Gamecocks decisive stretch included Tiffany Mitchell's two foul shots after Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy was called for a technical.
Muhammad had a season-high 26 points, two shy of her career best set against St. John's last season.
Gamecocks leading scorer Mitchell, the defending SEC player of the year and sixth in league scoring at 14.8 points a game, shot just 1 for 9. Wilson also struggled with her shot, finishing 6 for 17 from the floor. She had 10 rebounds for her third double-double this season.
The Gamecocks were back on the court after nearly two weeks off - their last game was an 84-44 win over Liberty on Dec. 21 - yet the break didn't seem to slow them down in their first league contest.
South Carolina senior Olivia Gaines is the team's best defender. It was her shot that turned things around against Auburn. Gaines hit the only shot she took to start the Gamecocks' decisive second-half run. Gaines had taken only 20 shots in 12 games this season, but says Staley is encouraging her to shoot when open. ''It's about being focused and about being ready to get in the game,'' Gaines said.
Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said frustration with her team's deficit led to her technical foul after the Tigers were called for an offensive foul. ''I thought it was a touchy game, very physical,'' she said with a smile. ''And I just wanted a foul.''
Auburn: The Tigers fell to 2-14 all-time against No. 1 teams. They've lost 11 straight, the previous defeat coming at then top-ranked Duke on Nov. 27, 2005. The Tigers' last win over No. 1 came in the 1990 NCAA Final Four, beating Louisiana Tech 81-69. Auburn fell to Stanford in the championship game. The Cardinal's semifinal win came over Virginia, which was led by point guard - and now South Carolina coach - Staley.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks' defense has kicked in of late, holding their past five opponents to 50 points or fewer.
Auburn: Hosts Florida on Sunday.
South Carolina: At LSU on Sunday.