COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)”The Freshies” have had a winning impact on South Carolina, one coach Dawn Staley believes will last long after they leave campus.
”We’ve had leaders leave a legacy of leadership,” Staley said Sunday after her top-ranked team’s 73-63 victory over Georgia. ”It’s still intact.”
And has more yet to accomplish.
The group of five led by reigning AP national player of the year Aliyah Boston and high-scoring Zia Cooke (they’ve called themselves ”The Freshies” since arriving as the country’s No. 1 recruiting class) has helped the Gamecocks win three Southeastern Conference titles, two league tournament crowns and last year’s NCAA championship.
Boston had her 78th career double-double with 25 points and 11 rebounds, and Cooke had 10 of her 12 points in the first half as the Gamecocks (29-0) completed a perfect, 16-0 SEC season.
The quintet, which also includes Brea Beal, Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson, has a 122-8 record the past four years and has won 35 straight games since its last loss to Kentucky at the SEC Tournament a year ago.
Boston and her teammates hope to avenge that and add to their trophy collection this coming week.
”There’s definitely no relief” after their flawless regular season, she said. ”Now, were into the season where winning is the only option.”
Kamilla Cardoso, the Gamecocks’ 6-foot-7 reserve, also had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Georgia (20-10, 9-7) kept things uncomfortably close into the second quarter before the Gamecocks pulled away for their 17th straight victory in the series.
Georgia frustrated South Carolina nearly two months ago, holding Boston to four points and five boards in a 68-51 loss on Jan. 2.
The Bulldogs defense was at it again, this time limiting just about every other Gamecock besides Boston to stay within arms length of the defending national champions. Diamond Battles’ basket with 5:58 to go before the half tied things at 25.
South Carolina dialed up its own defense for a 10-2 run the rest of the half to take control. The Gamecocks forced three turnovers and Georgia missed its five attempts during the four-minute span.
Cooke opened the surge with a driving bucket and closed it with a three as the Gamecocks lead 35-27 at the break.
South Carolina used its dominating height advantage – Cardoso scored all her points the final 20 minutes – to maintain a double-figure lead for much of the second half.
Georgia came in with a five-game win streak, but fell to 0-4 this season against ranked opponents. Battles led the Bulldogs with 20 points.
Bulldogs first-year coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson was proud of her team’s fight and said this doesn’t diminish in how they’ve gelled the past month.
”Their personality is now becoming my personality,” she said. ”Which I love that. They’ve got to be fighters and they’ve got to be tough.”
Georgia: The Bulldogs had no offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes against South Carolina, which is second nationally in grabbing its opponents misses with more than 31 a game this season. Georgia entered this game fifth in SEC offensive rebounding per game at 13.3.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks were stunned by Kentucky in last year’s SEC Tournament finals. But it’s hard to imagine South Carolina’s versatile, talented roster letting up after the way they’ve handled the challenges of being No. 1 and remaining undefeated.
Aliyah Boston had her emotions on display as South Carolina’s seven seniors were celebrated at Senior Day. Boston cried several times, including on video as she discussed her time at school in a taped message to fans. When Boston cried in the tunnel before the ceremony, she got a bit of coaching from Staley, ”It’s too early,” Boston recalled.
Georgia starts SEC Tournament play on Thursday.
South Carolina, the top seed, begins play in Friday’s quarterfinals.
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25