COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s Aleighsa Welch didn’t like Savannah State hanging around the NCAA Tournament opener and urged her teammates to do something about it.
The top-seeded Gamecocks (31-2) used a 21-1 run early in the second half to break away from the Lady Tigers for an 81-48 victory Friday night.
The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions had lost by 62 points the last time they played at Colonial Life Arena, yet were down 49-39 with 15 minutes left in the game.
“It was a little too close for comfort,” Welch said. “We knew we had a run in us and it had to start on the defensive end.”
That’s when Welch’s basket got the run going. Point guard Kadijah Sessions followed with two quick steals and five points as the Gamecocks cruised to their sixth straight NCAA Tournament opening game win.
It was South Carolina’s first time hosting an NCAA game at home in 13 years.
“Overall, I was happy with the atmosphere and really happy with the outcome,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley sadi.
A’ja Wilson scored 15 points and Alaina Coates and Welch had 12 points each.
The Gamecocks, who set a program record with their 31st win, shot 64 percent in putting away the Lady Tigers (21-11) for a second time this season. South Carolina won its 33rd straight at home. It will have one more at Colonial Life Arena Sunday when it faces Syracuse for a spot in the Sweet 16.
The Gamecocks last played an NCAA game on campus in 2002. Ever since, they’ve been prevented by the NCAA’s ban against the Confederate flag which flies on Statehouse grounds. The governing body changed its rules, allowing the top 16 seeds to play the first two rounds at home.
Ezinne Kalu had 21 points for Savannah State.
South Carolina’s size, strength and athleticism eventually wore down the Lady Tigers in their first-ever NCAA Tournament game.
“In the second half, some of our youthfulness took over,” Savannah State coach Cedric Baker said.
After Jasmine Norman’s bucket made it 49-39 with 16:04 left, the Gamecocks went on their game-changing run to take control and win their sixth straight opening NCAA Tournament game.
This figured to be mismatch in a lot of ways. Besides only one 16th seed upset over a No. 1 in history — Harvard’s take down of top-seeded Stanford in 1998 — these teams met in December with the then No. 1 ranked Gamecocks running away for a 111-49 victory.
South Carolina used its strong inside game of 6-foot-5 Wilson, 6-4 Alaina Coates and 6-4 Elem Ibiam to dominate in the blowout. The power trio combined for 64 points and 20 rebounds.
This time, though, the Lady Tigers did a much better job keeping South Carolina from roaming free inside. Coates broke free for three quick baskets for a 26-12 lead midway through the opening period as the Gamecocks threatened to run and hide once again. Instead the MEAC champs pushed the pace for easy buckets of their own.
When Kalu hit a 3-pointer with 2:28 to go before halftime, South Carolina’s lead had shrunk to 36-28.
South Carolina went into the break ahead 43-30, a sizeable difference from last Dec. 14 when the Gamecocks led the Lady Tigers 60-22 at halftime.
While Coates had nine first-half points, Wilson and Ibiam had two points apiece and took a combined four shots.
It was the Lady Tigers who had the rebound edge the first 20 minutes, 13-11, although that changed too in the second half with South Carolina moving in front 33-24.
South Carolina forwards Welch, Ibiam, Wilson, Coates and 6-4 Jatarie White were a combined 19-of-21 shooting for 37 points.
Lady Tigers coach Cedric Baker said he put in some new offensive wrinkles at the last minute trying to take away South Carolina’s inside strength. Things worked well, he said, for about 25 minutes, “and then we lost our composure.” Savannah State was outscored 32-8 the final 15 minutes.
Savannah State: The Lady Tigers posted several program-shaking victories this season. Their 68-58 win over Florida was their first over a Southeastern Conference team and they handed five-time MEAC champion Hampton its first conference loss in 54 games on Jan. 24.
South Carolina: South Carolina shot 72 percent in the opening half, making 18 of 25 shots. … Gamecocks leading scorer Tiffany Mitchell was named one of four finalists for the Naismith Award.
Savannah State season is over.
South Carolina will play Syracuse on Sunday in the second round
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