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Jan. 2, 2014

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – No. 13/12 South Carolina needed late free throw and defensive heroics to secure a 55-51 win over Arkansas in the SEC opener for both teams at Bud Walton Arena Thursday night. The Gamecocks (13-1, 1-0 SEC) got double-doubles from Tiffany Mitchell and Alaina Coates in the victory as the defense held the Razorbacks (13-1, 0-1 SEC) to just 26.1 percent shooting. After holding a 12-point lead at the half, South Carolina struggled with turnovers late in the second half to give Arkansas hope for the upset. Coates dominated the glass and Mitchell delivered from the free throw line late to secure the win.

The game got off to a sloppy start as two young teams shook off nerves of starting SEC play, but the Gamecocks found their footing first with a 10-0 run keyed by the sophomore tandem of Mitchell and Asia Dozier on the offensive end and solid team work on the defensive glass. After a Mitchell steal, Dozier scored on a putback to kick things off. Mitchell hit a free throw line jumper on the next possession, and after a pair of misfires from both teams, the Gamecocks really got it going. Dozier hit a pull-up jumper on the baseline, and Mitchell followed up her own miss to make it a 10-2 Gamecock advantage. A Razorback turnover put South Carolina back on offense quickly, and Aleighsa Welch followed up her miss with her first bucket of the game to put the Gamecocks up 12-2 with 13:11 to play in the half.

Arkansas took advantage of a South Carolina turnover to score on consecutive possessions, but the Gamecocks rattled off the next eight points behind strong rebounding. Coates book-ended the surge, hitting from the right block to start and through a double-team on the left block to finish it and give South Carolina a 20-7 edge with just under eight minutes to play in the half.

A spate of South Carolina turnovers let the Razorbacks pull within six at 20-14 three minutes later, but the veteran duo of Mitchell and Welch locked down the remainder of the half. Mitchell’s drive opened the 8-2 run that sent the game to halftime. Welch followed with a transition layup then took a feed from Olivia Gaines to score from the left block and closed it with a nice slip to the basket where Dozier found her to make it a 28-14 lead. Arkansas got a pair of free throws from Kelsey Brooks just before the half to make it a 28-16 game.

The Razorbacks started the second half with a flurry and were encouraged by getting Elem Ibiam to commit her fourth foul less than four minutes into the period, but again, the Gamecocks had the answer. The response began with a 3-pointer from Dozier late in the shot clock and continued with an inside basket from Coates and a driving left-handed layup from Mitchell to put South Carolina up 38-23 with 15:26 to play.

Just when things looked to be back on track for the Gamecocks, turnovers began piling up. After Coates’ traditional three-point play made it a 41-25 with 13:25 to go, the Razorbacks kept South Carolina off the board for the next seven minutes. Fortunately, the Gamecock defense was keeping it in check as Coates was all over the glass. Arkansas scored just eight points off the six Gamecock turnovers and missed field goals during the stretch, closing to within eight at 41-33 with 6:35 to play.

Welch fought for a tough basket falling down to get the offense back on track and put the Gamecocks back up by double digits. The Razorbacks came back with a 3 from Brooks to make it a 45-38 game with just under five minutes to play. South Carolina went to Mitchell for a stop and pop for a 47-38 lead. Neither team could connect on its next two possessions, and Welch came up with a big defensive rebound off a miss on the first end of an Arkansas 1-and-1 opportunity.

The free throw line provided the Gamecocks with some challenges down the stretch, but they hit just enough to stave off the charging Razorbacks, who got three 3s from Jessica Jackson in the final 1:13 to keep the game in jeopardy. Mitchell, who hit just two of her first four attempts from the charity stripe drained her final four with the game on the line to deliver the victory.

Mitchell led all scorers with 16 points to go with 11 rebounds, including two in the final minute to help stave off the Razorbacks’ rally. Coates came off the bench with 11 points and 12 rebounds. The freshman added five blocks to the defensive effort, including four in the second half. Welch joined the duo in double figures with 11 points to with her career-high tying four blocks and seven boards. Dozier led the Gamecocks with five assists.

South Carolina is back at home in Colonial Life Arena for its next two SEC matchups, beginning with Vanderbilt on Sun., Jan. 5, at 1 p.m.