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Feb. 10, 2013

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — No. 15/12 South Carolina fought tooth and nail from start to finish in a narrow 50-48 loss to No. 14/16 Texas A&M in women’s basketball action at Colonial Life Arena Sunday. The 10,101 fans in attendance saw both teams battling in every possession, but in the end, the Aggies (19-5, 9-1 SEC) escaped on a second-chance opportunity in the final 10 seconds of play. For the Gamecocks (20-4, 8-3 SEC) matched A&M in the paint with 28 points each and had two in double figures, led by senior guard Ieasia Walker’s 16 points.

“I was extremely pleased [when I] saw the amount of people in the stands,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “I was happy people decided to stay and watch our game, and I think they created an advantage and a great atmosphere. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the win for them. But [Texas A&M] made a play at the end of the game. We were in the play, and we boxed out. They (Texas A&M) did a great job and put themselves in a position to win the game. But, my girls are my girls, and they did a great job today, too.”

South Carolina’s defense did what it does best – hold opponents well below their scoring average and shooting percentage – limiting the usually efficient Aggie offense, which leads the SEC in field goal percentage, to just 35.0 percent shooting and holding the Aggies 22 points below their scoring average. The markedly taller Aggies held the advantage on the glass, which impacted the final minute of the tie game.

The game was physical throughout as both teams had high stakes on the line – a top-four seed in the SEC Tournament and a move up the national polls. South Carolina made the first big offensive move, snapping a 9-9 tie with 11:45 left in the first half with a 9-2 run behind solid defensive rebounding that limited Texas A&M to just one just per possession. After Aleighsa Welch’s runner knotted the game, a defensive rebound from Ashley Bruner keyed a transition layup from Welch. The Gamecocks survived consecutive turnovers and, again found a basket in transition off a rebound, this one from Bruner. Kristi Bellock added a jumper for the Aggies, but the Gamecocks went right back to work. Tiffany Mitchell hit a 3 from the left wing, and Walker drove the lane to make it an 18-11 South Carolina lead with 6:23 to go in the first half.

Texas A&M capitalized on three straight Gamecock turnovers to tie the game at 18 with 3:41 on the clock, and pulled ahead 21-18 at 3:01 on a traditional three-point play from Kelsey Bone. Tiffany Mitchell answered with a fast break layup and then converted the and-one for a three-point play of her own. Texas A&M finished the first half strong though going on a 6-0 run in the last three minutes to take a 27-21 lead into the break.

Walker took command right out of the locker room in the second half, scoring the team’s first six points to pull within three at 30-27 less than three minutes into the period. All three of the buckets were aggressive going to the rim and had the Aggies on their heels. After Bruner converted one of her two free throws, Adrienne Pratcher looked to stop the surge with a 3 from the top of the arc, but the Gamecocks had more offense left, led by a pair of jumpers from Walker and a pair of free throws from Welch that put South Carolina on top 34-33 with 12:27 to play.

The game was tied to changed leads six times in the next four minutes as neither team was willing to budge. The Gamecocks broke through first with free throws and strong defensive stands. Mitchell, Khadijah Sessions and Bruner hit three free throws around a hook shot from Elem Ibiam to give the Gamecocks a 45-41 lead with 6:24 to play.

Texas A&M shot its first free throw of the half with 5:37 left to play in the game, as the Gamecocks played lock-down defense and kept the Aggies off the line. Bruner scored a layup with just under five minutes to play for a 47-42 Gamecock lead. Bone kicked off a 6-0 Texas A&M run with a move across the lane that preceded a pair of baskets by Karia Gilbert, who was taking advantage of the Gamecocks’ focus on stopping the Aggies’ high-scoring center to put the Aggies up 48-47 with 2:48 to play.

The game was tied again 48-48 with 2:20 left to play after Sessions hit a free throw. After Gamecocks misfired after a pair of offensive rebounds on the next trip up the floor, but continued to force the Aggies into tough shots while securing the defensive glass. The Aggies’ Courtney Williams missed a pair of free throws with 1:11 on the clock to hold the game at 48-48.

South Carolina secured the rebound, but could not get a good look at the basket inside on the possession. The Aggies snared the rebound and after a time out, set up a play for Pratcher to take a 3. The shot bounced off the front rim and found Bone, who gathered herself the delivered a jumper with nine seconds to play.

The Gamecocks devised a play for Walker, who looked inside for Bruner, but the ball was tipped out. Walker recovered in the lane and got out of some traffic, but with the clock winding down could not get a great look at the basket, and her 3-point attempt grazed the front rim as the clock ran out.

“What a ball game,” Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair said. “Both teams played better in the first half, and in the second half, it was every woman for herself. I’m proud of South Carolina’s defense. Nothing came easy for us in any of our sets. We had to work and earn everything we got. Their ball pressure was tremendous. It was a great atmosphere tonight because of the great crowd.”

Bruner led the Gamecocks on the glass with nine rebounds, falling a rebound and a point shy of her second-straight double-double. Mitchell joined Walker in double figures with 10 points, while Walker added four assists and four steals in her 38-minute effort.

South Carolina plays its next two games on the road, traveling to No. 10/8 Kentucky for a 7 p.m. game on Thu., Feb. 14, then on to Ole Miss for a 2 p.m. contest on Sun., Feb. 17. The game at Ole Miss will be televised by the SEC Network. The Gamecocks return to Colonial Life Arena on Sun., Feb. 24, when they will take on Mississippi State at 3 p.m.