NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The screams of relief and celebration from South Carolina’s players in the hallway outside their Verizon Arena locker room left little doubt about exactly how badly they wanted to reach their first women’s Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game.
Now they’d like to add the school’s first conference tournament title to their growing resume as well.
Led by 16 points from Alaina Coates, the No. 3 Gamecocks (29-2) mounted a furious second-half comeback to avoid being upset in the semifinals for a second straight year with a 74-54 win over LSU on Saturday.
They did so after trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half before shooting a remarkable 18 of 23 (78.3 percent) from the field in the second while winning their first SEC tournament semifinal game in three chances.
The top-seeded Gamecocks — who have risen from SEC afterthought to national power in seven seasons under coach Dawn Staley — were upset by Kentucky in the tournament semifinals last year. They face Tennessee in the championship game on Sunday
“It means that we’re doing the right things, we’re doing it the right way,” Staley said. “Sometimes doing it the right way requires you to be a little bit more patient than we would like … It means our program is continuing to grow.”
South Carolina appeared on the verge of faltering in the semifinals for a second straight year, falling behind 24-13 early in the first half.
However, the Gamecocks outscored the fourth-seeded Lady Tigers (17-13) 47-23 in the second half — led by Tina Roy, who scored 12 of her 15 points after intermission.
Raigyne Moncrief had 20 points to lead LSU, while Dashawn Harden added 19 — including 17 in the first half. The Lady Tigers, who have reached the NCAA Tournament in three straight seasons under coach Nikki Caldwell, were trying to reach their first tournament championship game since 2012.
“It was a well-fought game for about 30 minutes,” Caldwell said. “My young team, they’ve got to grow and learn from this and understand that you’ve got to play with that same intensity for 40 minutes.”
The Lady Tigers led 35-31 early in the second half after a drive by Harden. South Carolina, though, followed with a 26-7 run to go up 56-42 and put an emphatic finish on what had been a struggle for much of the game.
After opening 1 of 6 from the field, Roy hit four straight 3-pointers in the second half — including a banked shot from the left side of the floor to put South Carolina up 60-43. She finished 5 of 10 from behind the arc.
“I know I missed a few in the first half, but in the second half my teammates just encouraged me to keep shooting the ball,” Roy said. “And they eventually started falling.”
Aleighsa Welch had 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Gamecocks, the back-to-back SEC regular-season champions, while Coates added eight rebounds and was 8 of 11 from the field.
The Lady Tigers lost by 24 points in each of their two defeats to South Carolina earlier this season, but they led by as many as 11 in the first half before settling for a 31-27 halftime lead.
Harden spearheaded the surprising surge, scoring the first nine points for LSU and hitting all five of her first-half 3-pointers — finishing with 17 points in the half.
“It was fun, but it wasn’t enough,” Harden said.
LSU: The Lady Tigers rose from 70th to 58th in the NCAA’s RPI standings following their quarterfinal win over Texas A&M, and many projections have them reaching the NCAA Tournament despite their lackluster overall record. They did, however, finish the regular season 10-6 in the SEC — including a pair of wins over Texas A&M and one over No. 12 Kentucky.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks were making their third semifinal appearance in the last four years. They were upset by Kentucky 68-58 last year as the top seed and lost to second-seeded Tennessee 74-58 in 2012.
Tiffany Mitchell, the two-time league Player of the Year, was scoreless in the half after missing all four of her shots. The junior guard didn’t score until hitting a jumper with 9:23 remaining in the game, and she finished with four points on 1-of-6 shooting against the LSU defense.
LSU must wait to hear its postseason destination.
South Carolina faces Tennessee in the SEC championship game on Sunday.
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