Mississippi State had the height advantage and a guard duo in Diamber Johnson and Porsha Porter that averaged over 30 points per game, but it was South Carolina that used its superior speed and talent advantage in a 69-43 rout of the Bulldogs Sunday afternoon at the Colonial Life Arena. It was the Gamecock guard duo of La’Keisha Sutton and Markeshia Grant that outperformed the Bulldog duo. Grant scored 15 points and Sutton a team-high 17 points to lead Carolina offensively. The two combined to score 17 of the first 20 Gamecock points in the second half in that decisive 20-5 run that blew the game open. For MSU, Porter was able to surpass her season average with 19 points – many in trash baskets with the game already out of hand – but Johnson was held in check to just 2 points.
“We know she’s (Johnson) the engine that’s behind what they do well,” Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “Obviously she’s the head of their basketball team. We like to cut the head off and the rest will go. Porsha Porter came to play. We knew their guard-play was our main concern, so if we could take one of them out of the equation it benefits us overall.”
After Mississippi State scored the first basket of the game on a Catina Bett jumper, Carolina reeled off six straight points to take a 6-2 lead. The Bulldogs would cut the lead to two on three separate occasions, but an 8-2 run would build the Gamecock lead to eight at 20-12. MSU would score the next two baskets and had a chance to trim the lead back to two, but Kendra Grant missed a pair of free throws. Charenee Stephens would score in transition off the second miss to put the Gamecocks up by six again and they would enter the locker room with a 30-22 lead, thanks in large part to Sutton’s 10 points in the opening half.
Back-to-back-to-back three pointers from Grant, Sutton, and Grant again to start the second half stretched the Gamecock lead to 39-23 two-and-a-half minutes in. A Grant lay-up, her eighth point in the first 3:28 of the half, led to a 41-25 lead and a MSU timeout.
“It was a great game for Markeshia,” Staley said. “She’s one that’s been struggling from an offensive standpoint before the last couple of games. I’m happy for her that she’s jumpstarted because she jumpstarts our offense. Anytime she’s got that three-ball rolling it’s obviously a good thing, but she’s one that has very good court vision. We just have to get out and get into some fast-break opportunities for her to show-case that.”
Following the timeout, things continued to go south for the Bulldogs. Ashley Bruner drove the lane for a lay-up in transition, followed by a pair of Sutton transition lay-ups to quickly stretch the lead to 47-25 and force another Bulldog timeout. Porter would drive the lane and finally end the 17-3 Gamecock run to start the half.
“I think defense was a key to the offense,” Grant said. “The halftime speech was ‘you guys are doing a good job; we just need to clean up a few things with ball screens’ and that’s what we did. In the second half we changed our ball-screen defense and it led to offense.”
Carolina would stretch the lead to as many as 32 points when it took a 65-33 lead after a lay-in from freshman Elem Ibiam with just over five minutes to play as the Gamecocks were in cruise control.
“I think we got out and got some easy buckets; we started shooting shots in our offense and I think sometimes that catches people off-guard,” Staley said. “If you’ve scouted us before the last few games, we’re not as aggressive from an offensive standpoint in our early offense. I thought we came out in the second half and took open shots; took shots that were natural to us and, fortunately for us, we were on the right side of the big run.”
Charenee Stephens, Aleighsa Welch, and Ibiam each finished with six points to go along with Grant’s 15 and Sutton’s 17. Porter’s 19 points for MSU led all scorers. Despite a superior height advantage, 6-4 Martha Alwal and 6-5 Catina Bett finished with just six apiece for the Bulldogs.
“I think I have more of an advantage strength-wise; I may not look like it,” Stephens said. “Sometimes we go out with with the bigs and you have to be confident in your strength and go ahead and push those girls out because that’s when they’re effective.”
Carolina, now 17-5 overall and 6-3 in the SEC, needed the two home wins it got this week as they head on the road the next two games with match-ups at #7 Tennessee and Arkansas one week later before returning home to face the Florida Gators in two weeks.
“Tennessee is Tennessee; it’s an easy game to get up for,” Staley said. “Fortunately for us we’ve won our last couple of games so we’re feeling really good about ourselves. Preparation-wise it’s going to come down to what we do Tuesday and Wednesday to prepare for a team like Tennessee. You’re not just preparing for a team, you’re preparing for a tradition. You have to be on all cylinders when you go up against somebody like that.”