GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Coach Dawn Staley nodded her head as reserve Laeticia Amihere talked about No. 1 South Carolina’s versatility.
The undefeated Gamecocks are certainly talented with two-time SEC player of the year Aliyah Boston and leading scorer Zia Cooke. They’re also deep with players like Victaria Saxton and Amihere filling major roles, helping South Carolina reach the conference tournament final for the eighth time in nine seasons.
“I think our bench is a great asset to our team,” said Amihere, who scored a game-high 17 points in an 80-51 win over Mississippi in the SEC semifinals on Saturday.
Boston posted her 80th career double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Cooke had 14 points and Brea Beal, another starter, 13 for Gamecocks (31-0) who won their 37th straight game.
They will take on Tennessee for the conference championship on Sunday.
South Carolina needed a great escape at Mississippi two weeks ago, trailing late before forcing overtime and keeping its perfect season intact with a 64-57 victory.
The Gamecocks took the drama out of this one early with Cooke and Boston getting four points apiece and Beal adding a three-point play for a 13-4 lead less than seven minutes in. They stretched the lead to 15 points by halftime and were ahead by at least 20 points much of the final two quarters.
“When they’re playing like that, trust me, they’re hard to beat,” Mississippi coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said.
It was the second straight year Mississippi’s tournament was ended in the semifinals by the Gamecocks.
Boston, who surpassed Sheila Foster’s school career double-double mark earlier this season, broke Foster’s career rebounding record of 1,427 that stood for more than four decades. Boston now has 1,432 in her four seasons.
South Carolina will look for its seventh tournament crown since 2015, along with a bit of payback since its last loss came in the final of this event a year ago to Kentucky.
South Carolina’s defense, third in Division I in holding opponents to 50.9 points a game, was on full display. The Rebels made just two of their first 13 shots and had eight of their attempts blocked the first 20 minutes.
Mississippi could not find an answer and matched its fewest points in a game this season.
Leading scorer Angel Baker, averaging 15.3 points coming in, was held to nine on 4-of-15 shooting. Madison Scott led the Rebels with 15 points,
Kamilla Cardoso also had a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Cooke finished with 14 points and Beal 13 for the Gamecocks.
Staley has had zero issues from her group about playing time, all focusing on the ultimate goal of winning. “I don’t think any decision to play them or not to play them, hurts their confidence,” she said. “That’s because we communicate extremely well.”
Mississippi: The Rebels will make their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance after reaching the event for the first time in 15 years in 2022. Mississippi, a seventh seed, was upset in first round by South Dakota.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks certainly aren’t one of those teams that half-steps it in the conference tournament with an eye on the NCAAs. They’ve shown a versatility on offense — Saxton had 19 points to lead South Carolina on Friday and Amihere’s game-high performance here — and a lock-down mentality on defense.
South Carolina starting point guard Kierra Fletcher went to the locker room in the first quarter after falling and holding her leg. Soon enough, though, Fletcher sprinted back to the bench and briefly played before Staley decided to take her out as a precaution. Fletcher, a grad transfer from Georgia Tech, has started 28 games this season.
Mississippi will await its NCAA Tournament destination.
South Carolina will take on Tennessee for the SEC Tournament title Sunday. The Lady Vols beat No. 4 LSU 69-67 in the semifinals. On Feb. 23, the Gamecocks topped Tennessee 73-60.
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