COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Top-seeded South Carolina was determined not to get in another tight contest with feisty Syracuse. The Gamecocks will need a similar drive to reach NCAA Tournament heights they haven’t before.
Tiffany Mitchell and Alaina Coates each scored 14 points and South Carolina (32-2) built a big first-half lead and cruised to its third Sweet 16 in four years with a 97-68 NCAA Tournament victory over Syracuse on Sunday night.
It was a vast reversal from November’s Junkanoo Jam finals when the Orange led by double digits in the second half before falling 67-63. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said her players came out with a fire and focus apparent at Saturday’s practice and pre-game shoot around.
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She urged them not to let it go in the next round, where the Gamecocks have lost both previous trips.
”It’s the same place we’ve been for a couple of years now,” she said. ”In order for us get over that hump, it’s going to take us playing inspired basketball. It’s going to take some focusing in on our opponent. It’s going to take executing some game plans because they stakes, they are higher.”
The Gamecocks have to wait until Monday night to find out if their next opponent is Ohio State or North Carolina, which bounced South Carolina in last year’s Sweet 16 in Seattle.
This year’s trip to Greensboro, North Carolina is sure to include several busloads of South Carolina fans, who produced the program’s 14th game of 10,000 or more this season.
”How about that, Gamecock Nation,” Staley said after the game. ”We thank you from the bottom of our hearts and we’ll see you in Greensboro.”
South Carolina put on a show in the season’s final home game, using a 21-5 run to take control and lead by 28 at halftime.
Syracuse (22-10) could not get within 20 points the rest of the way.
Aleighsa Welch added 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Gamecocks (32-2), who turned an anticipated tight rematch into a runaway by halftime.
Welch had 11 points and Asia Dozier hit three of her four 3-pointers in the opening period for the Gamecocks, who used a 21-5 run to take control.
Alexis Peterson had 23 points to lead the Orange.
South Carolina had six players score in double figures. Along with Mitchell, Coates and Welch, Southeastern Conference freshman of the year A’ja Wilson scored 13, while Dozier and backup point guard Bianca Cuevas had 12 apiece.
It was the most points the Orange had allowed since losing 101-64 at Notre Dame last year.
”We knew if they made threes early, we’d have a problem,” Syracuse coach Quentin HIllsman said. ”We had a problem.”
South Carolina celebrated with home fans when the game ended. The party didn’t last long, by design. ”Tonight, we’re going to celebrate getting a good win,” Welch said. ”But we still have a lot of basketball left in us.”
Cornelia Fondren had 16 points for the Orange, although Syracuse’s three-guard lineup of Peterson, Fondren and Brianna Butler was a combined 16 of 49 shooting.
South Carolina had 20 points in the paint all game in the first meeting. It had 26 in the opening half and 42 for the game.
LACK OF AGGRESSION
Along with Dozier’s three-point shooting, Hillsman had to pull back on his tough defense when the Orange quickly picked up fouls. They were seven-to-one in that category early on. ”You can’t press when your best players on the bench with fouls,” he said.
South Carolina completed its second straight undefeated season at home. It’s won 34 straight at the Colonial Life Arena, dating back to a loss to Texas A&M late in the 2013 season.
Syracuse: The Orange have averaged more than seven 3-pointers a game this season, but have not reached that total in the past three games. They had five in a regular-season win over Clemson, six in an ACC Tournament loss to Wake Forest and six in defeating Nebraska 72-69 in the NCAA Tournament opener Friday night. They struggled from 3 in the opening half as they fell behind. Syracuse finished with eight 3-pointers, most coming after the game was decided.
South Carolina: Forward Aleighsa Welch tied a school record with her 134th game played for the Gamecocks, matching the mark of Sheila Foster set from 1979-82 … The Gamecocks shot 64.2 percent in beating Savannah State, their best showing in 13 seasons at Colonial Life Arena … South Carolina shot 62.1 percent in the opening half, its third straight period shooting 50 percent or better.
Syracuse season has ended.
South Carolina plays either Ohio State or North Carolina in the Sweet 16 next Friday night in Greensboro, North Carolina.