March 7, 2003
By CHUCK SCHOFFNER
AP Sports Writer
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – LaToya Thomas had so much help that her poor shooting could not keep her team down.
Tan White and Doceide Warren each scored 20 points as No. 10 Mississippi State held on after losing most of a big lead to beat No. 16 South Carolina 79-75 on Friday night in the Southeastern Conference quarterfinals.
Thomas, averaging 25.6 points, was only 4-of-15, but still finished with 18 points, 15 rebounds, three blocks and three steals as Mississippi State (23-7) moved into Saturday night’s semifinals against No. 3 Tennessee.
“Everybody has to be involved, even the bench,” Thomas said. “Everybody stepped up to take the pressure off me. I never did get in an offensive rhythm, so I worked on my defense and on going after rebounds.”
Her teammates joined her in running down those rebounds. Mississippi State outrebounded South Carolina 56-29 and outhustled the Gamecocks for 25 offensive rebounds, which helped the Lady Bulldogs to a 24-9 edge in second-chance points.
“To see 25 offensive rebounds, just think of all the second chances you get there,” Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning said. “We were taking good shots and we just kept working.”
South Carolina (22-7) trailed by 16 points early in the second half and was down 76-68 with under 18 seconds to play, but still managed to throw a scare into the Lady Bulldogs. Mississippi State didn’t nail down the victory until Thomas made two free throws with 1.1 seconds left.
“We never lost our hope that we could win this game,” South Carolina’s Cristina Ciocan said. “We fought to the end, even though we should have started earlier.”
Kelly Morrone made three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point shot to draw South Carolina to 76-71 with 11.3 seconds remaining. Then Jocelyn Penn hit a layup after stealing the inbounds pass to make it 76-73.
After Blessing Chekwa made one of two free throws for Mississippi State, Ciocan drove for a layup to cut the lead to 77-75 with 2 seconds remaining. But Mississippi State was able to inbound the ball to Thomas and she made her final free throws.
Chekwa finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds as Mississippi State had four players score in double figures for only the fourth time this season.
Penn led South Carolina with 20 points, but had only six in the second half. Morrone scored 18, Ciocan 16 and Petra Ujhelyi 13.
“We had been playing our best basketball, but I think we played tight tonight,” South Carolina coach Susan Walvius said. “It’s really difficult to win when you give up 25 offensive rebounds. I thought they outworked us there.”
Leading 42-38 early in the second half, Mississippi State ran off 12 straight points, White capping the run with a 3-pointer. Ujhelyi helped bring the Gamecocks back by scoring seven points in a three-minute span, and Ciocan scored seven straight South Carolina points to pull her team to 65-58 with 4:38 remaining.
Warren’s 3-pointer and Rebecca Kates’ layup stretched the lead to 70-58 and appeared to finish off the Gamecocks, but they made one more run.