COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — National Player of the Year candidate A’ja Wilson scored 22 points as seventh-ranked South Carolina survived a scare from Florida.
Sitting on the bench for the first half of the second quarter as coach Dawn Staley elected to give her some rest, Wilson watched her undermanned teammates give up a 15-0 Gators run. Trailing by 10 at home, Wilson re-entered the game and led a burst to tie the game at halftime. South Carolina went on to a 64-57 win on Sunday.
Funda Nakkasoglu stroked five 3-pointers among her 21 points to keep Florida close, but South Carolina received 18 points from Ty Harris to claim a 20-win season for the seventh straight year.
“I have to pick and choose spots in which to give her a blow because I knew she would probably have to play the rest of the way, so I chose to do it at that point,” Staley said. “When someone’s as good as A’ja, you’re going to feel the void when she’s off the floor. And obviously, we’re thin and young, and that’s what they’re going to be.”
Down to nine players for the season when Lindsey Spann was lost for the year, the Gamecocks (20-5, 9-3 SEC) traded punches with Florida before trading runs at the end of the second quarter. The Gamecocks quickly spurted ahead by 10 points out of the halftime locker room, but Florida closed it to four with seven minutes to play.
Doniyah Cliney hit two free throws and Harris scored five straight points to keep the Gators (10-15, 2-10) at bay. It’s the second Top-25 win Florida nearly nabbed in three games.
“I thought we did a terrific job making them uncomfortable,” coach Cameron Newbauer said. “Hats off to them and Ty Harris for making some big, big shots when they had to.”
South Carolina: The Gamecocks won’t win a fifth straight SEC regular-season championship, but can clinch a top-four spot in the SEC tournament over the next two weeks to give them a great shot at winning a fourth straight SEC tournament. South Carolina is nearly locked into a Top-16 berth for the NCAA tournament, meaning it will host the first two rounds at Colonial Life Arena.
Florida: An expected rough season under Newbauer has the Gators staring up at the rest of the league. Florida will have to find a way to win at Texas A&M and beat Tennessee or Georgia to get out of the bottom four of the SEC standings and avoid an SEC tournament Wednesday game.
The No. 7 Gamecocks didn’t drop after a loss to top-ranked Connecticut and may not drop after Monday’s loss to No. 2 Mississippi State. USC should stay in the Top 10 in any case.
INJURIES: Spann is out for the season with a knee injury. Held to just 15 of 24 games because of her troublesome knees, Spann had returned to play two games this week. She was announced out just before tipoff, depriving the Gamecocks of their best outside shooter. A fifth-year graduate student, Spann’s collegiate career is over. South Carolina will dress nine players for the rest of the season.
Staley was pulling double coaching duty this weekend with the USA Basketball team having a training camp in South Carolina. Staley is the U.S. national team coach and would practice with the pro players in the morning before going with her college team.
South Carolina heads to Georgia Thursday. While the Gamecocks won both games against the Lady Bulldogs last year, each came down to the wire.
Florida is at Texas A&M before facing Vanderbilt in a game that could elevate the winner out of the lower-four teams in the standings.
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