South Carolina vs. UNC Greensboro NCAA Tournament

Sutton Jones

During South Carolina’s SEC Tournament opener against Georgia on Nov. 5, Sutton Jones was defending an opponent one on one when she heard a familiar voice from the sideline advise her to apply a bit more pressure.

It came from Tatumn Milazzo.

In a perfect world with no injuries, it would have been Milazzo, the South Carolina senior outside back, on the field during the crucial postseason match. Instead, because Milazzo suffered a season-ending knee injury with one game remaining in the regular season, it was Jones on the field at the time and Jones who has been in the team’s starting lineup its last five games.

In the five games she has started at outside back, Jones has scored a goal, picked up a key assist and been an unsung hero for the team during its postseason run, which continues for the No. 2 seed Gamecocks (17-1-3) at home on Friday at 6 p.m. in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Notre Dame (11-7-2), a team it beat 2-1 on Sept. 12 at Stone Stadium.

“[Sutton’s] so good on the ball. She’s composed and can do things out of the back we want to see in our defenders where they get forward, can serve a good ball and can keep it for us,” Gamecock head coach Shelley Smith said. “… Having her possess and control and not get flustered in the back is a big piece for us.

“… And she’s done a great job of tackling, when needed, and winning balls in the air.”

“She’s such a good player on the ball. Even though she’s not the most vocal all the time, you can just tell by the way she plays that she knows exactly what she’s doing,” SC defensive midfielder Jyllissa Harris said.

Jones had not started this season before Milazzo’s injury but had played considerable minutes in an outside back rotation with Sarah Eskew and Paige Mikula.

“Having to fill the shoes of Tatumn, she was such a great player, I just want to be able to [play well] for her and the team, because I know how hard we’ve worked all season,” Jones said.

But the sophomore was no stranger to suddenly being thrust in the starting lineup.

Last season, after incumbent starter Jackie Schaefer suffered a career-ending concussion with just one game to go in the team’s regular season, Jones started the season’s final four games. She played at least 90 minutes in the team’s regular season finale and SEC Tournament opener and 70-plus minutes in each of the team’s NCAA Tournament matches.

This season, like last, Jones has not missed a beat.

With three-time SEC Defender of the Year Grace Fisk, SEC Goalkeeper of the Year Mikayla Krzeczowski and two-time SEC Defender of the Week Anna Patten alongside her, Jones has fit in seamlessly with one of the nation’s best defenses.

South Carolina has not allowed a goal in its past five games and ranks third in the country in goals against average (.323).

Jones mentioned before the NCAA Tournament that she has had a lot of fun. She’s even first in one of the team’s warmup lines.

“[But] it’s also pretty nerve wracking, honestly,” she admitted. “Stepping into such big shoes.

“But my team has been super helpful along the way. They’ve been confident in me, and that’s helped me be confident in myself. Definitely having so much experience back there, with Grace and Anna and Skew and Mik, has been super helpful.”

Jones earned All-Tournament team honors at the SEC Tournament in Orange Beach, Ala.

She gave the Gamecocks a first-half lead in the team’s semifinal matchup against Vanderbilt.

“I didn’t even think the ball was coming to me, but I made my run,” she said. “And then the ball came right to me and I headed it in. … After I scored, honestly, I don’t remember much. I just remember feeling a feeling I’ve never felt before. I was so happy and just proud I could do that for my team.”

She then assisted on Ryan Gareis’s game-winner against Arkansas in the final.

“She was great. … I think she’s really stepped into the role,” Fisk said. “Obviously it’s a big responsibility filling Tatumn’s shoes, but she’s really stepped into it and done well.

“… She’s on fire and getting more confident as each game has gone on.”

Added Krzeczowski, “She’s stepped it up for sure. And she understands the shoes she’s filling. … With the ball at feet, she’s looking up and making sure she connects passes. And defensively, she has gotten tougher and better at reading the game. I feel like she can only get better from here.”

But Jones credits the players around her.

“Mik especially, she’s always talking and always looking to help me out and kind of guide me in the right direction,” Jones said. “And Anna and Grace, they’re such great leaders. They’re so calm on the ball and great with communication.

“That all just calms my nerves and helps me play.”

While Harris said Jones may not be the most vocal player on the Gamecocks, the latter spoke boldly and confidently about her team.

“I really do think this team has the potential to go all the way,” she said. “Hopefully we keep grinding and we get there.”