LSU’s women’s basketball team, with a Top 25 victory to its credit this season, was perfectly positioned Sunday for a bigger breakthrough moment against fourth-ranked South Carolina.
The Tigers, who trailed by a point with 3 ½ minutes to play, found themselves on the wrong end of a 10-2 Gamecocks’ closing kick in a 69-65 SEC setback at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“If we can clean up some of those areas where we have a three, four and five-minute span of not scoring, then we’re going to be in much better shape as we continue through this season,” LSU coach Nikki Fargas, whose team already owned a 65-61 overtime upset of No. 7 Texas A&M. “We can’t keep having those little lulls at the end of a quarter. If we can clean that up, then I think we’re going to be fine.”
South Carolina’s closing burst proved to be too much for LSU to overcome in a game it successfully dictated tempo for three quarters.
The Gamecocks (12-1, 7-0 in SEC) won for the ninth straight time and defeated the Tigers (6-7, 4-3) for the 11th straight time.
“I felt we needed to pick the pace up, make them play faster and maybe turn them over,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “Just disrupt the pace they wanted to play.”
South Carolina averaged 83.2 points per game but was limited to 42 percent shooting and 43 points by LSU’s stingy matchup zone going into the final quarter of play.
LSU lost its grip on the lead with 8:11 left in the game on Destanni Henderson’s second 3-pointer of the half, giving the Gamecocks a 48-47 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The 3-pointer was the de facto starter’s pistol for a South Carolina offense that shot 62.5 percent in the final quarter. The Gamecocks stretched the lead to 52-47 on the strength of a 9-0 run that Lele Grissett finished on a layup following a turnover the Gamecocks forced with their full-court pressure just after LSU starting point guard Khayla Pointer had gone to the bench for a breather.
Center Aliyah Boston scored nine of her game-high 20 points in the fourth quarter to lead a balanced USC lineup that also included Henderson with 16 points, Zia Cooke 11 and Brea Beal 10.
Reserve guard Tiara Young followed her own miss with 3:42 to play, her first field goal in 24 minutes, to pull LSU within 56-55. Fueled by hitting five straight shots while LSU made just 1 of 5 with a turnover, the Gamecocks 10-2 run gave them their biggest lead of the game at 66-57.
That margin remained nine points until Young’s driving layup and Jailin Cherry’s 3-pointer, both in the final 30 seconds.
“We definitely got exposed late game when we weren’t scoring the basketball and they were getting their transition game going,” Fargas said. “I thought that was the difference in the game.”
Pointer had 15 of her team-high 18 points in the second half and Young had 16 with 10 of those coming in the first 10 minutes of play when the sophomore guard, along with Faustine Aifuwa, spent the majority of the quarter on the bench with two fouls.
“It’s going to be really hard for us when Faustine and Tiara Young are out of the game for seven and eight minutes in the first half,” Fargas said. “I’m very proud of our bench play coming in and holding it down. I think in the first half, you have those two in the game, I really believe it’s a different ball game for us offensively.”
Pointer came alive in the third quarter and scored nine of her team’s 20 points, but it was her assist to Aifuwa for a 15-footer at the buzzer that gave the Tigers a 45-43 lead going after three quarters.
The quarter featured a pair of lead changes – the game had 10 in all – and two ties when LSU grabbed the momentum on Aifuwa’s jumper which the Tigers extended to 47-43 when Awa Trassi scored on a layup on an assist from Pointer.
“First half I was worried about Boston who led the country in blocks per game,” Pointer said. “Just being more aggressive and using my body, timing the ball on my release point. I had to get in there and get some buckets for the team.”
Karli Seay provided LSU with a lift going into its halftime with a 25-23 lead after forcing a turnover, gathering a loose ball and driving in for a layup before the buzzer.
Despite playing the majority of the second quarter without Young and Aifuwa, the Tigers held up OK. They led at halftime after a pair of free throws from Rakell Spencer tied the game with 17.9 seconds to go, followed by Seay’s final play for a two-point halftime edge.
Young and Aifuwa went to the bench within 27 seconds of each other at the seven-minute mark of the second quarter, coincidentally during LSU’s biggest run of the game – a 9-0 surge that bridged the final 1:27 of the opening quarter – for a 17-13 lead.
Young scored 10 of her team’s 17 points, including six straight to ignite her team’s 9-0 run, but went to the bench at the 7:41 mark followed by Aifuwa at 7:14.
LSU capped its run at the 6:23 mark after a hustle play when Seay forced a turnover that resulted in Cherry’s layup.
South Carolina, which made 5 of its first 20 shots, ended a six-minute drought without a field goal on Henderson’s short jumper from the lane and the Gamecocks pulled even at 17-all on a Beal’s two free throws.
That touched off a stretch over the last four-plus minutes where the game was tied three times, including a highlight-reel reverse layup from Trassi that made it 21-21 with 2:01 showing.
“This is obviously a 40-minute game,” Fargas said. “I thought our kids played hard, I thought we did some really good things in the first half defensively to disrupt a very talented South Carolina team.”