NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Dawn Staley had five days to simmer and hope No. 3 South Carolina would play “angry” following a surprising loss at Kentucky to end the regular season.
The Gamecocks coach received her wish on Friday.
Led by Tiffany Mitchell’s 12 points, along with a school-record 15 blocked shots, No. 3 South Carolina (28-2) advanced to the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals with a 58-36 win over Arkansas.
It’s the third semifinal appearance in the last four seasons for the top-seeded Gamecocks, who are seeking their first tournament title after back-to-back regular-season conference titles.
More importantly, Friday’s win helped temper the frustration following only their second loss of the season last week.
“I wanted them to be mad,” Staley said. “I wanted them to be angry like I was … You want them to feel that, because at this stage of the game you don’t really have a whole lot of do-overs. You have to get it done.”
South Carolina’s controlled defensive fury was apparent from the outset, as was its dramatic size advantage.
The Gamecocks had nine blocks in the first half, with A’ja Wilson and Elem Ibiam finishing with four each overall, and they held the offensively frustrated Razorbacks (17-13) to a season-low 19.3 percent (11 of 57) from the field.
Jessica Jackson had 13 points to lead Arkansas, which had advanced to the quarterfinals with a win over Mississippi, but the second-team All-SEC selection was only 2 of 13 from the field — with both of her makes coming on 3-pointers and away from the heart of the South Carolina defense.
“It’s not a question when you look out on the court, you see that they had a definite size advantage,” Arkansas senior Calli Berna said. “… Once you get in (the lane), you don’t see them coming.”
Arkansas, desperate to secure its first NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons under first-year coach Jimmy Dykes, struggled mightily in the first half against South Carolina’s interior size — hitting only 7 of 31 shots (22.6 percent).
The Razorbacks were outrebounded 44-32, but their biggest problems came while trying to score inside against South Carolina’s combination of the 6-foot-5 Wilson and 6-foot-4 Ibiam, who also had nine rebounds.
The Gamecocks topped their previous best of 14 blocks as a team, both times coming last season. They had 11 blocks in a win over Arkansas two weeks ago, also topping their previous season-best of 12 in their last game against Kentucky.
Alaina Coates, coming off the bench, added 11 points and a pair of the blocked shots.
“I, personally, have never been part of a game that involved so many blocks,” Coates said. “But it gives you a lot of energy, especially just among the bigs, when you know everybody is going to be there, and we’re just knocking everybody’s shots back into the stands.”
After falling behind by as many as 14 points in the first half, the Razorbacks cut South Carolina’s lead to 38-31 early in the second half after a pair of free throws by Jackson. The points capped a 6-0 run and 14-7 overall start to open the half.
Coates, however, ended the run with a putback of her own miss on the other end — starting an 8-0 run by the Gamecocks that gave them their largest lead of the game at 46-31.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks entered Friday 43rd in the latest NCAA RPI standings, but they are projected by many as an NCAA Tournament team. Dykes, in his first season after leaving a job as an ESPN analyst, made little secret of his feelings about Arkansas’ case. “We did everything over the years the selection committee tells you you’re supposed to do,” Dykes said. “We scheduled very aggressively in the nonconference … Our resume is really, really strong.”
South Carolina: The Gamecocks, the top shooting team in the SEC, finished 24 of 54 (44.4 percent) from the field. South Carolina entered the game having hit 47.7 percent of its shots this season.
Despite its emergence as a national power in seven seasons under Staley, South Carolina has yet to reach the SEC Tournament championship game. They lost in the semifinals as a No. 6 seed to Tennessee in 2012 and again in the semis last year to Kentucky — then as a No. 1 seed like this season.
Arkansas now waits for its postseason destination to be determined.
South Carolina moves on to face Texas A&M or LSU on Saturday.
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