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Mississippi St falls to No. 6 South Carolina 71-64

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STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP)

Mississippi State was once again close to knocking off one of the Southeastern Conference's best teams.

That used to be encouraging for the Bulldogs. Not anymore.

Mississippi State fell to No. 6 South Carolina 71-64 Thursday night. The Bulldogs fought back from a 12-point deficit to pull within 55-54 with 6:25 left, but couldn't take the lead.

''At the end of the day you lose to No. 6 in the country and I'm sure everyone in the arena thought `Man, we're close,''' Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. ''The kids played hard and we had a chance to win, but we're not very happy in our locker room because we feel like this was our night to beat No. 6.''

The Bulldogs couldn't hit enough shots to make it happen. South Carolina's big night blocking shots didn't help.

Aleighsa Welch scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and Elem Ibiam blocked a career-high seven shots as South Carolina pulled out a tough win.

Ibiam has 63 blocked shots this season, surpassing the school record of 60 set by Lakesha Tolliver in the 2006-07 season. Alaina Coates added three blocks as South Carolina (21-2, 9-1 Southeastern Conference) tied a school-record with 14 rejections in the game.

Mississippi State shot just 21 of 63 (33.3 percent) from the field.

All of South Carolina's defensive dominance might suggest an easy game. That was far from the case.

South Carolina appeared to have the game in hand with a 52-40 lead midway through the second half, but Mississippi State pulled within 55-54 with 6:25 remaining.

The game stayed tight until the final minute, when Tina Roy hit a 3-pointer with 50 seconds left to put the Gamecocks ahead 66-59.

''It's a product of playing in our league,'' South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. ''There are no easy games. We knew coming into the game that Mississippi State is playing extremely well. They've been in every game and it's only going to be a matter of time before they start winning games like this.''

Mississippi State (16-8, 3-7) lost for just the third time at home this season. Jerica James led the Bulldogs with 11 points. Martha Alwal and Savannah Carter both added 10.

Mississippi State's offensive tendency to drive played right into South Carolina's hands. Ibiam blocked five shots in the first half and Coates swatted three more before halftime.

''We have a big front line,'' Welch said. ''It's very tough, especially when both (Ibiam and Coates) are going to deal with it. You've got 6-3 and 6-4 down there battling. I credit them for being so consistent. That's the biggest thing.''

South Carolina pushed ahead early, using an 11-0 run to lead 17-9 less than seven minutes into the game.

But Mississippi State stayed close despite South Carolina's fierce interior defense. James hit an 18-foot jumper late in the first half to pull the Bulldogs within 34-29 at halftime.

''They made big plays,'' Welch said. ''A lot of times we'd get caught cheating and it cost us. You've got to give credit where it's due, but I thought we did a good job of answering their runs.''

Mississippi State closed the gap to 34-32 early in the second half on Dominique Dillingham's layup, but South Carolina countered with five straight points and pushed its advantage to 52-40 on Khadijah Sessions' 3-pointer with 11:30 left.

Sessions finished with 14 points. The Gamecocks had a 40-31 rebounding edge and made 20 of 23 (87 percent) from the free throw line.

It hurt Mississippi State when Alwal left the game because of foul trouble in the second half. The 6-foot-4 junior is the team's one true post option and the only player big enough to guard South Carolina's frontcourt.

The Bulldogs still made a run without her. James made three 3-pointers to keep Mississippi State close, but the rest of the offense couldn't make enough shots to ever take the lead.

''I love our energy and our effort and passion,'' Schaefer said. ''We just lack a little execution and we have some plays where we're not smart.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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