Jue. Feb 29th, 2024

BATON ROUGE, La. — The South Carolina Gamecocks were on the brink. They trailed for nearly 33 minutes of Thursday’s marquee matchup against No. 9 LSU in front of an antagonistic crowd of 13,205 clad in white T-shirts, animal print and sequins, hoping to see their defending national champion Tigers hand the nation’s No. 1 team its first loss of the season.

But even with a new-look team following offseason graduation losses, South Carolina did what South Carolina has done time and time again. Capitalizing off 2023 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Angel Reese fouling out with 4:02 to play, the Gamecocks went on an 11-3 run to close the game and come away with a 76-70 victory, extending their undefeated season start.

South Carolina (18-0, the only remaining undefeated team in Division I) has now won 10 straight games when falling behind by double figures, the longest active streak in Division I and a run dating back to November 2021.

«It was a game of runs,» South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. «They made big plays. We made big plays. The team that made the last play was the one that was going to win this basketball game.»

The win marked South Carolina’s 28th straight road victory, the longest such streak in SEC history and tied for the sixth longest ever in D-I, as well as its 37th straight regular-season conference win.

Even disappointed Tigers fans couldn’t be too upset with the result given the thrill of the evening. Between the raucous crowd, the presence of ESPN’s «College GameDay» and the contest’s back-and-forth nature through the final minute, the environment «had all the dynamics of what you want every women’s basketball player to experience,» Staley said.

LSU — which never led in the teams’ sole matchup last season, a 24-point South Carolina victory — «had their way with us» in the first half, Staley said, jumping ahead by as many as 11. But the Gamecocks stayed within striking distance, outscoring the Tigers by one in both the second and third periods before making their final push in the fourth.

Reese picked up her fourth foul early in that frame, exiting the game for a few minutes before returning at the 5:58 mark and then fouling out with the Tigers up two. The All-American finished with 15 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and a steal in 29 minutes.

«Angel is a talent. She’s aggressive. She’s poised. She’s very unselfish,» Staley said. «She’s mean, she’s physical, she is somebody that you want to play with because you know she’s going to play to the very end, she’s going to give it her all. That’s what you lose if you’re LSU and she’s out of the game for the last four minutes.

«When you lose Angel, you lose a big part of what they do, because she touches the ball and she makes the right decisions.»

The Gamecocks outscored the Tigers 24-13 after Reese was called for her fourth foul while outrebounding LSU 12-4 in the fourth quarter alone.

«Experience — that was a big hit for us,» LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson said of where the Tigers missed Reese the most. «We had four minutes left — that’s too much time to not have Angel Reese on the floor.»

The Gamecocks’ guards — the strength of their revamped roster — came up big in the game’s final 10 minutes, with Te-Hina Paopao, Bree Hall and Raven Johnson combining for 20 of South Carolina’s 24 points in the fourth. Hall’s pair of 3s with under three minutes to play and Johnson’s late layup sealed the victory.

South Carolina, the nation’s top 3-point shooting team, went 3-for-4 on 3s in the fourth quarter compared with 4-for-16 the rest of the game, but its ability to hit from deep «[gave] us a shot at winning a game in this type of environment,» Staley said, «when it was hard for us to get a bucket … in the paint.»

Chloe Kitts (14 points) led South Carolina in scoring, getting the Gamecocks going early with 10 first-half points, while Aneesah Morrow paced the Tigers with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

LSU coach Kim Mulkey lamented how a few of her team’s mistakes over the course of the game ultimately made the difference in a two-possession result, pointing to a 3-pointer the Gamecocks hit before the first-quarter buzzer as well as a 6-0 South Carolina run in the final 30 seconds of the first half that cut LSU’s lead from 11 to five.

«That was the No. 1 team in the nation, stacked team,» Johnson said. «I just felt like we were almost there, we were almost there.»

Mulkey said she isn’t one for moral victories, but that her still-evolving team — now 18-3 with two losses in SEC play — will learn from this experience.

«I think we’re one of the top teams in the country,» the coach said. «Losing to South Carolina the way we did sent a message that we’re not going away.»

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