If you wanted to trace the downfall of the ninth-ranked LSU women’s basketball in its upset bid of top-ranked South Carolina, coach Kim Mulkey suggested looking back at the end of the second quarter, not the fourth.
The Tigers had matched their biggest lead of the game when Flau’jae Johnson scored five consecutive points, including a 3-pointer, for a 41-30 lead with 1:21 remaining before halftime.
South Carolina, though, didn’t flinch. The Gamecocks responded with a three-point play from 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardoso and instead of holding for a final shot, LSU’s Hailey Van Lith missed a field goal attempt with eight seconds remaining.
The proved to be enough time for speedy freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley to make a 3-pointer at the buzzer, drawing South Carolina to within 41-36 at halftime.
For good measure, the Gamecocks went inside to Cardoso to start the third quarter, burying LSU’s Angel Reese deep in the paint for a basket that completed an 8-0 run – their biggest of the game.
That 64-second span may have been the game’s most relevant in South Carolina’s 76-70 comeback win Thursday over LSU before a raucous crowd of 13,205 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“The second quarter, when they went on that 8-0 run, that might have been where we lost the game,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said afterward. “You go in at half and you’re only up five. We can break it down to the end of the game because that’s what everybody remembers, but it’s only one possession and those possessions matter.”
LSU, which only trailed for the first 20 seconds of the Southeastern Conference showdown, had the upper hand until 6:26 remaining in the game.
The Tigers made their first eight of 15 shot attempts and stretched their lead to 11 points on Hailey Van Lith’s 3-pointer with just under a minute left in the first quarter. The Tigers equaled that lead five more times throughout the second quarter, the last on Johnson’s 3-pointer that made it 41-30.
The Gamecocks closed the gap at the end of each the first and second quarters with 3-pointers and trailed 56-52 after three quarters. They finally caught the Tigers (61-61) on Te-Hina Paopao’s two free throws with 6:26 to play.
USC also take advantage of LSU not having first team All-America forward Angel Reese on the floor in the fourth quarter with foul trouble. She spent three-plus minutes on the floor in the final quarter, returning from four fouls with 5:58 left to foul out with 4:02 showing and the game tied at 67-67 after Raven Johnson’s two free throws.
“She’s a talent,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said of Reese. “She’s aggressive, she’s poised, she’s very unselfish. She’s mean, she’s physical. She’s somebody you want to play with because you know she’s going to play until the very end. She’s going to give it her all. And that’s what you lose if you’re LSU when she’s out of the game for the last four minutes of the game. You lose that.
“For us, we tried to capitalize on her absence by picking on the freshman,” Staley said. “I thought (Aalayah) Del Rosario did a great job, held her own. She’s getting better. When you lose Angel, you lose a big part of what they do. She touches the ball, and she makes the right decisions.”
Reese scored 11 of her 15 points and grabbed seven of her eight rebounds in 18 minutes of the first half in which she called for one foul. She picked up her second and third fouls over a five-minute span of the third quarter, forcing her to leave the game with 3:43 left in the third quarter and LSU leading, 51-46.
South Carolina immediately attacked the paint and the combination of Cardoso and 6-3 Sania Feagin combined for six points before Reese returned at the 2:11 mark and LSU holding a 53-52 edge.
“They really stretched the floor on us,” Flau’jae Johnson said. “Our defense is five people guarding the ball when you have shooters. I think in the first half we did a great job of helping, getting to Cardoso and getting to our man. Down the stretch, they were tougher than us.”
Reese started the fourth quarter, had her only shot attempt blocked, before getting whistled for her fourth foul at the 8:20 mark that was upheld by replay.
LSU led 57-52 without Reese on the floor. Aneesah Morrow, who had a team-high 16 points, and Mikaylah Williams combined to help the Tigers maintain a four-point edge until South Carolina rallied behind Bree Hall and Paopao with three straight points and a 61-all deadlock with 6:26 to play.
When Reese returned, she found Williams for a corner 3-pointer and 67-65 lead but 32 seconds later, while trying to close on a driving Raven Johnson, was called for her fifth foul with 4:02 to play.
“They punched, we punched back and with a team as good as South Carolina you can’t back down,” Morrow said.
Raven Johnson’s free throws tied the game at 67-all until Van Lith made it 70-70 on a 3-pointer with 1:40 left.
That was LSU’s final field goal of the game. The Tigers made 1 of their last 7 shots, including only one shot by Morrow, and with only one offensive rebound from Del Rosario who had one of her better outings with seven rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench.
South Carolina made three of its last four shots with Hall providing the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:11 to go. Johnson added a drive to the basket and a late free throw to close a 9-3 finishing run.
“The game, a lot of times, is lost through the course of the game,” Mulkey said, “and at the end of the second quarter when they went on that 8-0 run, I thought that was big.”