No. 8/8 South Carolina used late free throw shooting and timely rebounding to separate from Cal State Northridge late in a 73-58 victory in NCAA Tournament first-round action at Alaska Airlines Arena Sunday afternoon. The Gamecocks (28-4) saw Tiffany Mitchell score 13 of her team-high 24 points from the free throw line, including going 6-of-6 in the final 63 seconds, while Alaina Coates posted her ninth double-double of the season to tie the South Carolina freshman record.
The Gamecocks did not score on their first possession of the game, but they did net the next eight points to establish all facets of the offense early. Khadijah Sessions drove the lane at the end of the shot clock to score the first basket, which Mitchell followed with a jumper from the right elbow. Elem Ibiam hit a hook shot, and Aleighsa Welch scored a transition layup for a quick 8-2 lead. The defense was staunch during the run, forcing tough shots and cleaning up the glass.
The Matadors eventually found their offensive rhythm, but the could not stop the Gamecocks, who launched a 7-0 run after seeing their lead cut to two behind CSUN’s Janae Sharpe warming up from 3-point range. Tina Roy hit a long jumper, and after a Welch block on the other end, Coates scored three straight points. Roy snagged an offensive rebound to reset the Gamecocks’ next possession that then ended with Asia Dozier hit a spin move and driving to the basket to make it 19-10 with 11:01 to go in the period. The Gamecocks’ lead stretched to 14 behind a 10-2 run, but the Matador were within 10 at the half.
CSUN was the aggressor early in the second half as the Gamecocks went cold from the field. A 13-point lead dwindled to four at 45-41 with 12:55 to the clock. Starting to wear down after battling the Gamecocks’ size all night, the Matadors began to foul, giving South Carolina the chance to surge ahead again. After Mitchell got things started by hitting a pair, Coates went to the line on three straight possessions. The 6-foot-4 center was also controlling the paint on the other end of the floor, snagging a pair of defensive rebounds to hold off the Matadors.
The run eventually extended to 10-0, putting the Gamecocks up 55-41 with 8:32 to on the clock, but CSUN was not finished. Even after a shot-clock buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Roy had South Carolina cruising, the Matadors mounted another advance, cutting the lead to 60-54 with just over three minutes to play, thanks to consecutive Gamecock turnovers. It was Ibiam who closed the door with a hook shot at the end of the shot clock to end a three-minute scoreless stretch. When Sharpe misfired on the other end, Ibiam rose through traffic to snare the rebound along the baseline. From there, it was a steady parade to the free throw line, during which South Carolina shot 11-of-12 after opening the game hitting just 16-of-30.
South Carolina shot 55.6 percent in the first half, and the Gamecocks out-rebounded the Matadors 52-36. Four Gamecocks finished in double figures. Mitchell’s 24 was one shy of her career high and came with a team-high four assists. Coates scored 13, adding 16 rebounds, including 11 in the second half, and blocked four shots. Welch and Ibiam added 11 points each with Welch finishing one rebound shy of a double-double with nine boards to go with her three blocks.
The Gamecocks await the winner of the Seattle site’s second game between eighth-seeded Middle Tennessee and ninth-seeded Oregon State. The two winners will square off on Tue., Mar. 25, at 6:3 p.m. (PT).