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Feb. 23, 2014

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – No. 4/6 South Carolina outlasted Florida in a gritty 69-55 victory Sunday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena in front of a season-best crowd of 10,547. The Gamecocks (25-2, 13-1 SEC) struggled to shoot the ball in the second half, but their defense held up until the offense found its stride again to close the game on an 11-4 run. Tiffany Mitchell shook off a slow start to finish with 20 points, including 14 in the second half, while Alaina Coates notched her eighth double-double of the season with 16 points and 12 rebounds.

“Tiffany [Mitchell] is a player,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “She’s not going to play perfect basketball every time, but when you’re able to handle adverse situations – like not playing up to par in the first half – and come back and play the way she did in the second, that’s when you know you are a player that can turn the page, that can bounce back and put us on her back from an offensive standpoint and get us a win.”

South Carolina got off to a slow start in front of the second-largest crowd ever at Colonial Life Arena, but Mitchell got the offense started on a 10-0 run with a pull-up jumper with 17:43 to go in the first half. Aleighsa Welch took care of the boards throughout the surge, adding drive to the rim to the pair of blocks from Elem Ibiam in two successive Florida possessions. Ibiam’s hook was followed by a Coates move on the right block that gave the Gamecocks an 8-7 lead with 15:31 to play in the half. After a spate of empty possessions from both teams, Welch capped the run with a jumper off an out-of-bounds play with just one second left on the shot clock.

The Gators finally scored, 7:37 after the end of their initial 7-0 run to start the game, but the Gamecocks maintained the lead, closing the half on a 13-5 run to take a 32-22 advantage into the locker room.

South Carolina’s lead stretched to 16 seven minutes into the second half behind a 6-0 run that included free throws from Welch, a drive from Mitchell and an inside bucket from Coates. Florida answered, though, forcing a series of turnovers and outside shots to launch an 11-2 run over the next six minutes to pull within seven at 41-48 with 7:03 to play.

The Gamecocks settled down and went back to their top two scorers. Welch hit a free throw, and Mitchell answered a Florida putback with a 3-pointer from the left corner. Florida kept the pressure on, staying within four at 54-47 with 4:01 to play. South Carolina found a seam to Coates, and the freshman hit from the right block, then came up with a defensive rebound on the other end. Her quick outlet pass found Welch streaking up the court for an easy transition layup to make it a 58-47 game with just a minute later.

With Florida putting the Gamecocks on the free throw line as the game drew to a close, South Carolina hit seven of their 10 opportunities to hold off the Gators and earn the victory.

Throughout the game, South Carolina made it difficult for the Gators in the paint, tallying 11 blocks. Coates swatted five of the total, tying a career high and Gamecock freshman record. Florida shot just 25.0 percent from the field in the first half, and the Gamecock defense held them to 19-of-59 for the game at 32.2 percent. Welch joined Mitchell and Coates in double figures with 12 points.

Today’s win and Texas A&M’s loss to Kentucky, the Gamecocks have clinched at least a share of the SEC regular-season title. It is South Carolina’s first in the SEC and their sixth conference championship in school history (five in Metro Conference).

“It feels great; it really does,” Staley said about clinching a share of the title. “The kids are working extremely hard to put us in this position. Not only the current ones, but the former ones who got their heads beat in (winning just two SEC games) six years ago and started the building process. It feels great to do what most people thought could never be done here at South Carolina. It’s a great day to be a Gamecock, and certainly we want to continue to take care of what we can take care of. And, if we can get it (winning the title outright) done on Thursday, I think it will be a wonderful thing.”

South Carolina is back on action on Thu., Feb. 26, for its final home game of the season, facing Georgia at 7 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks will honor their lone senior, Wilka Montout, prior to tipoff.