COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Georgia's Andy Landers hugged his South Carolina colleague Dawn Staley warmly after the Gamecocks clinched the Southeastern Conference crown with a 67-56 victory over the Bulldogs on Thursday night.
Landers has been on the other side of such special moments throughout his 35 seasons and says his team this year just wasn't up to competing with the SEC's best this season. And that played out once more as they fell behind the Gamecocks by 16 points early on and could never make a serious run.
"We played with more energy to start the second half and make a run and then we do the same things that we did at the start of the game," Landers said. "I think we had it to six or seven and then we let them get it back to 12. It's frustrating."
It's been that kind of season for the Bulldogs (18-10, 6-9), whose loss guaranteed a below-.500 mark in the SEC for just the fourth time in Landers' tenure.
Erika Ford had 16 points on 7-of-20 shooting while Shacobia Barbee had 14 points. None of the other Bulldogs scored more than five points.
Tiffany Mitchell scored a career-high 25 points and Alaina Coates added 18 as the Gamecocks (26-2, 14-1) finished 16-0 at home. South Carolina's other 6-foot-4 forward, Elem Ibiam, had a team-high nine rebounds and five of the team's 11 blocks.
The 26 victories are a high in Staley's six seasons and the most the team has won since going 30-6 in 1979-80.
Staley said earlier this year she was surprised at how quickly a team that lost three senior starters from a year ago jelled to become an SEC contender. As the league's top team, Staley's eager to fine-tune and see how far her players can go.
"I think we're playing extremely well," Staley said. "We like what winning feels like."
Mitchell made sure they held to that feeling against the Bulldogs. She had 16 first-half points while her teammates struggled to get untracked. When Georgia closed within seven points early in the second half, Mitchell had four points in a run that restored South Carolina's double-digit lead.
"I just kind of read the defense," said Mitchell, who topped her previous high of 22 points set against Southern Cal this past November. "I knew we could penetrate on them and get the ball inside."
Mitchell was 7 for 10 from the field and made all 10 of her foul shots. She also added six rebounds and two steals.
The crowd of 12,458 chanted "S-E-C Champs" as time ran down, celebrating a feat few Staley could accomplish pull off when she arrived six years ago.
Georgia cut the lead to 32-25 on Khaalidah Miller's foul shots with 17:18 left in the game, but Khadijah Sessions hit a basket and Mitchell scored the next four points to extend South Carolina's lead to 38-25 two minutes later.
The Bulldogs couldn't get closer than nine points the rest of the way.
Gamecocks players jumped around the court when the horn sounded, slapping hands with fans and hugging each other in celebration. A few moments later, SEC commissioner Mike Slive awarded the trophy to Staley and her team.
Coates, one of the top candidates for SEC freshman of the year, played just four minutes because of foul trouble. She earned two in a short stretch and when Staley sent her back in late in the half, Coates was called for a third foul.
The inside problems didn't matter much since Georgia put on one of its worst offensive halves of the season and trailed 30-18 at the break.
The Bulldogs opened 1 of 8 from the floor and never got much better. Their 18 points in the period were their second-fewest in a half this season, trailing only the 17 they managed in the first half of a 58-44 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 12th.
Georgia's three top scorers in Barbee, Miller and Ford were a combined 3 of 16 from the field for seven points.
They improved in the second half, but still finished 12 of 41 shooting in Georgia's loss.