COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley anticipated a bit of a letdown after topping UConn earlier this week.
She also expected her players to quickly get past it and perform like they have all season.
“It’s tough to come back from an emotional game like that,” Staley said. “But they found a way to get it done.”
Freshmen Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke had 13 points apiece and the top-ranked Gamecocks overcame a sluggish start before rolling over Auburn 79-53 for their 18th straight victory on Thursday night.
The Gamecocks (24-1, 11-0 Southeastern Conference) entered off a decisive, 70-52 win over No. 5 UConn — their first ever against the dominant women’s program of the past 20 years — a few days earlier.
And it looked like the they just didn’t have the same juice early on in this one as Auburn (8-14, 2-9) trailed just 22-19 early in the second quarter. But South Carolina regrouped for a 20-4 burst to take a 42-23 halftime lead on the way to its 10th straight win over the Tigers.
Cooke, part of South Carolina’s No. 1 rated recruiting class last spring, acknowledged she and her teammates were pumped after the landmark win and struggled to find their form. The Gamecocks were 0-8 all time against UConn before this week.
“It wasn’t really crisp, but we did the best we could,” Cooke said. “We had a long week. But we got the job done and that’s really all that matters.”
Tyasha Harris had 12 points and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan had 11 for South Carolina.
Cooke had four of the Gamecocks’ 10 3-pointers, a high against SEC opponents this season.
South Carolina played before a sold-out, 18,000-fan arena on Monday night, an electric atmosphere that ramped up at every Gamecock basket or UConn miss.
It was clearly not the same at the start for Gamecock players or fans.
The Tigers scored 13 points in the opening quarter — the Huskies had just 2 on this floor Monday night — and after 3-pointers by Erin Howard and Robyn Benton to start the second period, trailed South Carolina by only three points.
That’s when Cooke and Boston, the Gamecocks talented freshmen, fueled a 20-4 surge over the final eight minutes before halftime.
“They’re the No. 1 team in the country and the No. 1 team is going to have their runs,” Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said.
Cooke hit her third 3-pointer to start the run, then added another to keep things going. Victaria Saxton had a three-point play before Boston scored seven straight to put the Gamecocks up 42-23 at the half.
South Carolina grew the lead to 70-30 early in the fourth quarter before Auburn cut into the margin down the stretch.
Benton finished with 15 points to lead the Tigers.
THE BIG PICTURE
Auburn: The Tigers appeared ready to hang tight with their more accomplished opponents. But Auburn did not have the personnel to slow down South Carolina inside or outside. The Gamecocks hit 6 of 8 3-pointers the first two quarters and Boston was dominant down low.
South Carolina: Staley will have plenty to finetune after this. She had long preached for her team to stay locked in from the start. South Carolina instead gave up double-digit first-quarter points for just the second time in five games.
TAKING THE THREE
South Carolina has seemed to up its tries at 3-point shooting its past five games. After trying 87 3s in its first seven games since January, it has attempted 101 in its last five games. Staley said it’s not by design, simply what the defense is allowing. “We shot in rhythm,” she said. “If we do that, I don’t care if we shoot 100 3s.”
MESSAGE FOR THE COACH
When Williams-Flournoy was leaving the postgame interview sessions, she had a message for her colleague on the other bench. “Tell Dawn to go win that championship,” she said. When told, Staley thought before saying, “she meant the national championship.” Both teams will play in the SEC Tournament next month in Greenville.
Auburn returns home to play LSU on Sunday.
South Carolina plays its third of four straight home games against Vanderbilt Monday night.