By Josh Hyber/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
Victaria Saxton had played just six minutes of Sunday afternoon’s matinee against Alabama, but with just over eight minutes to go in regulation of South Carolina’s matchup against the Crimson Tide, the Gamecock freshman forward had already scored two of the team’s most critical baskets until that point.
She also grabbed two crucial rebounds and sank a clutch free-throw.
Two minutes into the fourth quarter, Saxton grabbed an offensive rebound in a what can only be described as caous and floated in a layup while being fouled. After arguments and lots of yelling from South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, Saxton sank a free-throw to give the home team a six-point lead.
She then forced Alabama guard Cierra Johnson into an errant layup.
On Sunday at Colonial Life Arena, the No. 23 Gamecocks (10-4) held onto that air-tight lead, squandered it briefly, then regained it in the final minute and beat Alabama (9-6) 62-59.
Forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan led the Gamecocks with 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocks, including a jumper from the right baseline that turned a one-point deficit into a one-point lead with 35 seconds to go.
“I just had to get it up and be confident, [and] I’m confident in my shot,” Herbert Harrigan said before adding, “That’s just one of my sweet spots.”
After the Saxton heroics early in the fourth quarter, South Carolina guard Bianca Cuevas Moore swished a short jumper from the right side with 6:43 to go give the Gamecocks a 54-49 lead. Saxton then came off the court to a rousing ovation, handing post duties to Alexis Jennings.
“When I went out there coach just told me to make sure I’m aggressive and be confident in myself,” Saxton said. “That’s just what I did.”
Cuevas-Moore then swished a jumper at the 4:39 mark to push the lead back to five at 58-53.
But Alabama forward Ariyah Copeland, after bumping Herbert Harrigan to the ground, banked in a layup to cut the Crimson Tide’s deficit to 58-55 with 2:51 to play.
The home crowd was livid.
Alabama’s Shaquera Wade then sank two free-throws to cut it to 58-57 with a minute and a half to play, and, with 1:04 to play, Alabama took its first lead of the game, at 59-58, on a jumper from Jasmine Walker.
That set the stage for Herbert Harrigan, who earlier this season lost her spot in the starting lineup because of inconsistent play.
But it was the defense that sealed the victory.
Te’a Cooper swiped in for a steal on the ensuing possession and was fouled. She made the first and missed the second free-throw attempt, giving the Gamecocks a 61-59 lead with 24 seconds to play.
Then Jennings reached in to poke a ball loose. Cooper found it and threw an outlet to Cuevas Moore, who was fouled. The senior sank one of the free-throws with less than five seconds to go before Cooper stole the ensuing inbounds pass.
“We try to take pride in our defense,” Herbert Harrigan said. “So when we had to come up with some big plays and get some big stops, we just went out there and did that.”
“You mention Kiki and you mention Te’a, but the other three players set them up to be successful in that they guarded,” Staley said. “I told them that in the locker room that they’ll probably get the headlines, but certainly everyone else did their job to set them up to be successful.”
Though Herbert Harrigan and Jennings scored early baskets in the second half, Alabama went on a 14-4 run.
Jasmine Walker sank a 3 from the top of the key, then intercepted a pass and ran in for an uncontested layup from half court to cut Alabama’s deficit to 41-37 midway through the third. The tide — and Tide — kept turning. Johnson hit a 3 to quiet the Colonial Life Arena crowd to make it 43-40, which was followed by a layup from Crimson Tide forward Ashley Knight.
Herbert Harrigan answered with a short jumper to make it 45-42 before Saxton checked in and laid one in from underneath to give the home team a 47-44 advantage.
South Carolina struggled at the rim and had eight turnovers in the first half but stayed in the game and kept a lead because Alabama shot 8 of 33 in the first half — the Crimson Tide missed its first 10 shots — and also turned the ball over eight times. They also had three shot-clock
The home team, contrasting its let-it-fly mentality, shot just five 3s in the first half and only made one. It didn’t need to though, because it shot 16 of 32 from the field and made all four of its free-throw attempts.
The lone 3 was the team’s first basket, a heave from Destanni Henderson from the right wing to jumpstart what became a 9-0 Gamecocks’ lead five and a half minutes into the first quarter.
Herbert Harrigan, who’s second in the SEC in blocks per game, got into the action early, blocking the 6-3 Walker two minutes into regulation before grabbing an offensive rebound on the ensuing possession.
Then, from her favorite spot on the floor, the 6-2 forward sank a jumper from the right wing just inches from the 3-point line to give the Gamecocks a 13-4 lead. Moments later it was déjà vu, as she hit one from just several feet in front of that spot to extend it to nine at 15-6.
Herbert Harrigan then scored from underneath on a feed from Henderson — to which she reciprocated with a “nice pass” and a point to the freshman — and sank another long jumper from the right side to give the Gamecocks a 27-18 lead that became 33-23 at halftime.