COLUMBIA, S.C. - No. 21/17 South Carolina had No. 1/1 Stanford on the ropes down the stretch, leading by two with 2:33 to play, but came up just short in the waning seconds to fall 53-49 in front of a rowdy 8,118 fans at Colonial Life Arena Wednesday night. Sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch led the way for the Gamecocks (10-1) with a season-high 17 points, scoring 13 in the second half. It was the Gamecock defense that made the game, however, forcing Stanford into 18 turnovers and holding the high-scoring Cardinal 25 points below its season average.
Senior guard Ieasia Walker joined Welch in double figures, scoring a season-best 15. Senior forward Ashley Bruner pulled in a team-high eight rebounds in the effort. South Carolina out-scored the Cardinal 30-29 in the second half and converted 18 Stanford turnovers into 11 points on the night.
Three Stanford players reached double digits, scoring 47 of the Cardinal's 53 points. Junior forward Chiney Ogwumike tallied 21 points and 15 rebounds, both game-highs. Junior guard Toni Kokenis added 15 points, and sophomore guard Amber Orrange registered 11. Stanford out-rebounded South Carolina 42-31, the first time the Gamecocks have been out-rebounded this season.
"I thought coming into this game, we would be able to hold our own because [our team] understood what it would come down to, and we just fell short. I think it's tremendous for our program to play in games like this, and I hope that the 8,000 people that came out tonight will come back and see us, because I think we put a good product on the floor that they can cheer loud for," said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley.
Both teams struggled to find an offensive rhythm in the first minutes of the top-25 match-up. While South Carolina was able to create good offensive opportunities, the shots were not falling for the Gamecocks. Solid defense kept Stanford within striking distance.
Stanford pulled out to a seven-point lead at 14-7 midway through the first half on baskets by Ogwumike and Orrange. The Gamecocks responded with eight unanswered points to go ahead 15-14. Welch scored all four of her first-half points in the stretch as her basket sandwiched a driving layup from Walker. Freshman guard Tiffany Mitchell gave the Gamecocks the lead on a jumper at the 6:33 mark in the half.
South Carolina forced turnovers on the Cardinal's next four possessions, but could not convert any of them into points. Ogwumike netted six of her 12 first-half points to put Stanford back up by five at 22-17. Freshman guard Asia Dozier drained a jumper to pull the Gamecocks within three with 15 seconds remaining, but the Cardinal pushed the ball up the court, and Orrange added a basket just before the buzzer to give Stanford the 24-19 upper hand at the break.
After neither team scored for the first three minutes of the second half, the Gamecocks got on the board with a pair of free throws from Bruner. Welch added a transition layup and hit two free throws to bring the Gamecocks to within one at 26-25 with 15:48 left to play. Orrange converted a three-point play for Stanford to build a six-point lead five minutes into the second half, but the Gamecocks would let the Cardinal go no farther.
A 3 by Dozier with 11:47 on the clock cut the margin to two but the Cardinal again had an answer, this time with a three-point play by Kokenis. The two teams traded baskets over the next few minutes before the Gamecocks got some quick offense rolling.
With 6:12 remaining, Walker swiped one of her four steals on the night and took it coast-to-coast for a layup to draw the Gamecocks within a point at 38-37. After Ogwumike hit on the other end, Welch picked up a mishandled ball under the basket and stuck it in from the right block. The 9-2 run ended with a Walker 3-pointer from the top of the arc for a 42-40 South Carolina advantage with 4:32 on the clock.
The two teams fought through tough defense over the next three minutes to tie the game three times and trade the lead twice. Ogwmike converted a traditional three-point play with 2:04 to go to put the Cardinal up one at 45-44. On the next trip up the floor, Welch took a foul and went to the free throw line. She hit one of her two shots to knot the score for the fifth time in the half. Mikaela Reuf got the ball on Stanford's next possession, backing down her defender before watching her contested shot roll around the rim and in to give the Cardinal what would be its final lead of the night.
Walker added four more points as the senior fought valiantly to the end for what would have been a signature win of her career. But, Kokenis went to the line three times in the last 22.4 seconds, hitting all six of her attempts.
With 15 points, three assists, four steals and three rebounds, Walker drove her team to the brink of victory in an exhausting 35 minutes of action. In the end, the Gamecocks' 28.6 percent field goal shooting got the better of them as they created more offensive opportunities than Stanford, taking 63 shots to just 47 for the Cardinal. The final margin of four points marked the first time the Gamecocks came within fewer than 14 points of a No. 1 ranked team.
South Carolina is quickly back in action on Fri., Dec. 21, at noon when the Gamecocks take on South Carolina State at Colonial Life Arena before taking a short holiday break.