Greenville – South Carolina trailed Mississippi State by five points entering the fourth quarter of the SEC Tournament Championship game on Sunday, March 5. However, the Gamecocks turned to their MVP, A'ja Wilson, who took over the game late as South Carolina surged to a 59-49 victory over the Lady Bulldogs at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
"It could've gone either way," head coach Dawn Staley said. "But I felt like our players, when it was time to step up, stepped up in a big way to get us to victory."
The victory gave the Gamecocks their third straight SEC Tournament title, and Wilson played a huge role in the victory. The junior registered seven points, seven rebounds and two blocks in the final quarter, and her two offensive rebounds late in the contest allowed South Carolina to wind down the clock, keeping Mississippi State at bay.
Kaela Davis also played a tremendous game, leading the Gamecocks with 23 points. Her 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter jumpstarted the South Carolina offense.
"I think the stakes were higher with these games as well, so I think that was part of it," Davis responded when asked about why she's playing with so much confidence right now. "We just have to be ready to play."
South Carolina (27-4) started strong in the first two games it played at the SEC Tournament, and the Gamecocks made it 3-for-3 in the championship game on Sunday, thanks to Davis.
The junior started the game with an off-balance floater, and after the Gamecocks forced a turnover on the other end, Davis scored a layup. On the next possession, Davis nailed a jumper from the corner, giving the Gamecocks a 6-0 lead.
Mississippi State (29-4) was able to get on the board, but Tyasha Harris knocked down a long jumper that gave South Carolina an early 10-2 lead and forced the Lady Bulldogs to call timeout.
Breanna Richardson's three-point play cut into the lead, but scores by Wilson and Harris allowed the Gamecocks to pull out in front, 14-5. Unfortunately, South Carolina would not score for the final 5:09 of the first quarter, allowing the Lady Bulldogs to get back into the game.
The Gamecocks turned the ball over, and Teaira McCowan grabbed an offensive rebound and stuck it back through on the MSU offensive end. After another Gamecock turnover, Morgan William got a layup to bring the Lady Bulldogs to within one point.
South Carolina held a 14-13 lead after a quarter, but it struggled on the offensive end after Mississippi State switched to man-to-man defense.
Mississippi State immediately took the lead to begin the second quarter, and it would be a back-and-forth game for the first part of the frame.
However, Davis heated up again. She hit a long jumper to make it a three-point game, and shortly thereafter knocked down her first 3-pointer of the game to give South Carolina a 23-17 lead. The junior scored 13 of South Carolina's first 23 points.
It was 25-17 before McCowan answered for the Lady Bulldogs, and Victoria Vivians brought them even closer with a three-point play that made it 27-24. Both teams would score late in the first half, and South Carolina entered the halftime break with a 29-26 lead.
Davis' 13 points led the Gamecocks, who made 13-of-26 (50 percent) field goals. Mississippi State made 10-of-27 (37 percent) attempts, and nine second-chance points kept the Lady Bulldogs within striking distance.
In a one-point game, Davis nailed another three to make it 32-28 South Carolina early in the second half. The Lady Bulldogs would not go away, however. A William shot tied the game at 34, and Mississippi State took the lead on a three-point play by McCowan.
It was back and forth again for a while, but back-to-back scores by McCowan gave the Lady Bulldogs a 45-40 lead with just over a minute left in the third. Staley was forced to call timeout as she tried to regroup her team.
The third quarter would end with the score still 45-40, and the 6-foot-7 McCowan was starting to take over the game for Mississippi State as she registered seven points and six rebounds in the third quarter alone.
"She's a great player," Wilson said of McCowan. "She really kind of gave me a different look that I hadn't seen throughout the tournament. It was difficult trying to get around her."
The Lady Bulldogs had all of the momentum entering the fourth quarter, but Wilson and the Gamecocks quickly changed that. First, Davis nailed a trey to cut the deficit to two points. Then, Wilson's two free throws tied the game, and after blocking McCowan's shot on the defensive end she converted a three-point play on the offensive end to give the Gamecocks a 48-45 lead. William's jumper snapped the 8-0 South Carolina run, but it was suddenly a game again.
"There is great talent out there on both teams, but in a championship game it really comes down to who wants it more," Wilson said. "We came out with a lot of heart and energy."
The Lady Bulldogs trimmed it to one, but the freshman Harris stepped up to make the biggest shot of her young career. She nailed a three to put the Gamecocks up by four points. Davis then got a layup to make it a six point game, forcing Mississippi State to call a timeout. However, it would be too late as the Gamecocks escaped with the 10-point win and started celebrating.
"It's amazing," said Davis, who was able to celebrate a championship for the first time after transferring from Georgia Tech. "There's really no feeling like it. We've been faced with a lot of adversity this year, but we found a way to fight through it."
Davis had 23 points to lead South Carolina while Wilson added 15 points and nine rebounds. Harris had seven points and dished out five assists. South Carolina made 23-of-48 (47.9 percent) field goals while the Lady Bulldogs made 21-of-59 (35.6 percent).
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe**