GREENVILLE, S.C. — South Carolina has a ring for the thumb, and Dawn Staley has a new netlace.
First the celebration was subdued, then, when the clock struck 4 p.m. inside Bon Secours Wellness Arena on Sunday, blue, white and yellow confetti fell on the team wearing white and garnet.
Staley, the South Carolina head coach, danced with the Carolina Band.
Ty Harris wrapped her arms around Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Destanni Henderson and swayed during the alma mater. Players rushed to team staffer Payten Martin, who handed them each their cell phones from a plastic bag.
Victaria Saxton proudly carried her 5-month-old niece Aubreigh, and Zia Cooke and Laeticia Amihere took photos with fans from Chapman (S.C.) High School.
The pandemonium began shortly before 4 p.m., when the final buzzer sounded on No. 1 South Carolina’s (32-1) 76-62 SEC Tournament championship game victory over No. 2 Mississippi State (27-6). The victory marks the Gamecocks’ fifth conference tournament title in five seasons.
“We’re talented. Our league is talented. We’ll be talented for the near future,” Staley said. “But when you win this league, when you win this tournament, it puts you in a position of competing on a broader scale — that’s competing for a national championship. That’s what we’ll try to do in the next phase of our season.”
“We’ve been on top for quite a while. Five out of six tournament championships and five out of seven regular seasons, what coach Staley and her staff have done with this program, and these players, it’s hard to find a weakness,” South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner told Spurs & Feathers while standing in a sea of confetti.
“It’s very impressive what they’ve done this weekend, the regular season and for the last few years. It’s been very special.”
Herbert Harrigan — the tournament MVP — led the way with 15 points, four rebounds and three blocks, while Brea Beal had 12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks for her first-career double double.
Tournament first-teamer Harris had 10 points and 10 assists, while Cooke had 11 points and Aliyah Boston had 11 rebounds. Henderson, another tournament first teamer, added eight.
“This was great. It’s just really fun out there playing with these group of girls,” Herbert Harrigan said. “We have a lot of fun together playing. That makes it a hundred times better. It just feels great.”
Added Beal, “Just to see the outcome of all the hard work we put in with each other, it’s crazy. Surreal.”
South Carolina finished with 11 blocks, bringing its SEC Tournament total to 31, the most by one team in conference tournament history. The Gamecocks also had 25 fast break points, compared to just four from the Bulldogs.
“We got beat up and down the floor quite a bit today,” Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer said.
It was Herbert Harrigan, who has recently been dubbed “Mad Kiki” by Gamecock fans, who fueled the fire.
The senior forward put in a layup and then went right back at it with a three-point play to give the pseudo home team a 43-24 lead less than two minutes into the third quarter.
She then put in a jumper with just over six minutes to play in the third that bounced once or twice off the back rim but it fell to give SC a 49-30 lead. Four straight Harris free throws pushed the lead to 53-30 with 5:23 to play.
Then came poetry in motion.
Boston grabbed a rebound on Jordan Danberry miss and threw a short outlet to Harris. The point guard threw three-quarters-court pass to Herbert Harrigan, stationed underneath the basket. Herbert Harrigan found Cooke, who fed Beal for the layup.
South Carolina fans roared, and the Gamecocks led by 25, 57-32.
Herbert Harrigan scored again underneath to make it 61-35 with a minute and a half to play in the third moments before Boston blocked Mississippi State’s Myah Taylor.
South Carolina shot 50 percent from the field, led for all but 15 seconds and led 38-22 at halftime. It only took one 3 but got to the line 13 times (compared to just four for the Mississippi State) and led 14-0 in fastbreak points.
The Gamecocks forced the Bulldogs into eight misses in its first 10 shots and held an 8-4 lead at the under-five timeout thanks to four points and five rebounds from Beal. That became 12-4 moments later after two free throws and a driving layup from Harris.
Beal continued her dominance with a layup while being fouled.
The lead already hit double digits, and seven minutes had yet to be played.
A Cooke free-throw line jumper extended it, but an Aliyah Matharu 3 gave the Bulldogs double digits for the first time with 1:21 to go in the first quarter.
A Grissett steal led to two Henderson free throws that gave South Carolina a 22-11 lead less than a minute into the second quarter. After Herbert Harrigan made two free throws, Henderson pushed the lead to 13, at 26-13, with a fastbreak layup down the left side.
Mississippi State called timeout.
But then the party officially began.
Herbert Harrigan swatted Bulldog guard Xaria Wiggins, Cooke swished a pullup jumper and the Bulldogs were forced to call another timeout with the Gamecocks leading 32-16.
After a brief pause because of some pushing and shoving underneath a basket, South Carolina continued to roll.
A Cooke layup and a Cooke free throw sandwiched a Herbert Harrigan blocked of Danberry, which she punctuated with a wild roar.
Another Cooke layup gave the Gamecocks the 16-point halftime lead.