Lady Gamecocks roll in first round of NCAA Tournament

No. 25 South Carolina shook off an early start and used its trademark defense to generate the season’s best offensive output in an 80-48 win over Eastern Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday afternoon at Mackey Arena.

The fifth seed in the Fresno Region, the Gamecocks (24-9) posted their season-high 80 points thanks to season highs in assists (22) and blocks (11) and 53.3 percent field goal shooting. The defense held up its end as well, holding the Eagles (23-9) to 26.7 percent shooting.

“I thought we represented out University extremely well,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “[Playing in the SEC] put us in a position to play in an environment like this, which is a big environment. It’s a big stage for our basketball team, and I thought we executed from the very tip of the ball.”

South Carolina got off to a slow start but got the offense going the way they have all season – creating turnovers. Three-pointers were holding up the Gamecock offense early with Markeshia Grant and Courtney Newton each hitting one, but otherwise shots were not falling.

Meanwhile, Eastern Michigan came out on fire, shooting 62.5 percent in the game’s first five minutes to take a 12-8 lead at the first media time out. The lead grew to 14-8 before South Carolina settled in on both ends of the floor.

La’Keisha Sutton opened things up with a transition layup then showed off her SEC All-Defensive Team status by winning a one-on-one battle to stop a transition layup on the other end. South Carolina started going inside more on offense with Ashley Bruner picking up the next two baskets.

Another Eastern Michigan turnover yielded a pair of free throws for Ieasia Walker, and the Gamecocks had a 16-14 lead with just under 11 minutes left in the half.

The Eagles tied it up with a move on the left block from Paige Redditt, but the Gamecocks went right back to work. Grant hit a pair of free throws after being fouled on a layup attempt following her steal at midcourt. Stephens added a free throw as well when she was fouled going after a rebound.

EMU leading scorer Tavelyn James stopped the run briefly with a free throw, but South Carolina’s inside game was clicking. Bruner put back a rebound then Stephens finished off a nice baseline pass from Tina Roy and sank a baseline jumper for a 25-17 Gamecock advantage with 7:53 to play in the period.

Eastern Michigan scored on back-to-back plays, but the momentum had clearly swung in the Gamecocks’ favor. Sutton added to the lead with a transition layup, which sparked a 12-2 lead that was actually manufactured on the other end of the floor.

Four turnovers and one-shot possessions were the story of the last six minutes of the half. While shutting down the Eagles, the Gamecock post players were piling up point. Roy put an exclamation point on the half with a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to give South Carolina a 39-23 advantage in the locker room.

The Gamecocks kept their foot on the gas early in the second half, quickly extending their lead to 26 points. The Eagles drew no closer than that after the first five minutes of the final stanza as South Carolina’s aggressive defense and deep bench sapped their energy and affected every shot.

For the third-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the Gamecocks won their first game at the event. Grant led the offense with 12 points, while Stephens and Bruner joined her with 11 and 10, respectively. Bruner’s seven rebounds led the way with Stephens and Walker adding six apiece.

Sutton and Walker combined for 11 of the team’s 22 assists, handing out six and five, respectively. Elem Ibiam’s five blocked shots tied the South Carolina freshman single-game record and is the most by any Gamecock in an NCAA Tournament game.

South Carolina will play Purdue on Monday at 7 p.m.

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