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Dec 16, 2002

AP Sports Writer

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Cristina Ciocan tied her career high of 23 points as No. 18 South Carolina continued its best season-opening run in 14 years with a 65-50 victory Monday night over Middle Tennessee.

Ciocan also had nine rebounds and six assists while tying her career-best point total set in the Gamecocks’ opener last month against Clemson. South Carolina (7-0) hasn’t started as well since going 9-0 in 1988-89.

She had three baskets, including the go-ahead field goal, during a 12-0 run in the final four minutes of the first half. She kept it going after the break with four points as South Carolina began with a 17-5 spurt that put the game out of reach.

Ciocan’s performance lifted the Gamecocks out of a sluggish start. No one, including leading scorer Jocelyn Penn, who had a school-record-ying 50 points in her last game, looked crisp as the Gamecocks returned to the court for the first time since defeating Wofford on Dec. 4.

The Lady Raiders (3-4), behind South Carolina native Patrice Holmes, were ahead 30-19 with four minutes to go in the first half. Holmes, twice a high school “Miss Basketball” in her home state, had nine points and easily breezed past Gamecocks defenders.

But South Carolina and Ciocan turned up the pressure the rest of the way.

Ciocan drove in for a basket to cut the lead to 30-23. She took a pass from Petra Ulheyi under the basket to make it 30-27, then held on to a hard pass from Kelly Morrone to give South Carolina its first lead in nearly 9 minutes.

Once in front, the Gamecocks didn’t give the Lady Raiders a second chance.

Koretha Johnson and Morrone opened with 3-pointers, and Ciocan had a basket as the lead grew to 39-33. Ciocan’s two foul shots five minutes later made it 46-35.

Penn added 15 points and Johnson 14.

Holmes led Middle Tennessee with 13 points, but had only four in the final 24 minutes.

The Lady Raiders of the Sun Belt Conference are 0-3 against ranked opponents this season, losing earlier to Cincinnati and Kansas State.