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South Carolina drives past Georgia for SEC Championship

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(Source: Gamecocksonline.com) (Source: Gamecocksonline.com)

No. 4 South Carolina secured sole possession of the program's first SEC regular-season title Thursday night in a 67-56 victory over Georgia in front of a season-high crowd of 12,458.

The Gamecock defense held the Bulldogs to 32.8 percent from the field, while sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell led South Carolina (26-2, 14-1 SEC) with a career high 25 points. Freshman center Alaina Coates found her rhythm and produced 18 points and eight rebounds.

"Tiffany Mitchell has been a player who anytime we needed a basket or a stop, she has come through for us," Staley said. "I thought she took advantage of what the defense gave her. Her ability to drive to the basket allowed her to get some easy buckets and put Georgia back on their heels a little bit and then kind of gave us a lead in the first half. In the second half, she hit a big three to keep us up by 13 when Georgia was making their run. She's done it all season long."

Mitchell scored 10 of the team's first 14 points as the Lady Bulldogs struggled to find any offense against the stingy Gamecock defense that, leading 12-7 with 12:53 left in the first half, held Georgia scoreless for seven minutes. South Carolina's offense fed off the series of stops, building a commanding 23-7 lead behind relentless attack on the basket.

The Gamecocks surged ahead with 10:58 remaining in the first half when Mitchell took the ball the full length of the court, and with a spin move at the arc, was able to find space and drive all the way to the basket for her 10th point nine minutes into the game. Aleighsa Welch hit a pair of free throws and, after Elem Ibiam controlled the defensive glass on back-to-back possessions, the run continued. Tiffany Davis hit two free throws, and Coates scored three straight points. Mitchell's free throws capped the spur, giving the Gamecocks a 23-7 lead with 7:35 to play.

The Lady Bulldogs hit a free throw with 5:52 to the clock, but South Carolina twice pushed its lead to 16 behind Mitchell and Welch. Georgia made a late run in the period, but the Gamecocks took a 30-18 lead into the locker room at halftime.

The second half was more of a back-and-forth affair as the Lady Bulldogs chipped away at the Gamecocks' lead. After Krista Donald cut Georgia's deficit back to single digits at 38-29 with 14:11 to play, South Carolina put Coates to work. The freshman center hit a free throw then converted on three-point plays in the next two Gamecock possessions to stretch the lead to 45-31.

Georgia would twice more come within 10 points, but was turned away each time by Mitchell. After Shacobia Barbee hit a 3-pointer to make it 47-37 at the 11:15 mark, Mitchell was fouled while grabbing an offensive rebound and hit the resulting two free throws. Four minutes later, Tiara Griffin hit a bucket to again get within 10 at 51-41, but Mitchell drained her lone 3 of the night to make it a 13-point game.

Georgia got no closer than 11 down the stretch as the crowd and the Gamecock defense pushed the home team to its 26th victory of the season and complete its undefeated home season.

"To be able to go undefeated [at home] in the league like we have, the best league in the country, for our players to be able to do that is quite amazing," Staley said. "I think winning the SEC is an amazing thing, but you never think of it taking 14 games to win it and you have an opportunity to do it at home. Kudos to them. They worked hard, both on and off the floor. Why not us? It is something I said six years ago, why not South Carolina? And we made it happen."

Ibiam closed the game with a team-high nine rebounds and five blocked shots, while Welch added three blocks to her six points and five rebounds. Mitchell shot 7-of-10 from the field and 10-of-10 from the free throw line en route to her career-high point production.

South Carolina is back on action on Sun., Mar. 26, for its regular-season finale at Tennessee at 2:30 p.m. (ET) in Knoxville.

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