COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has worked hard to get leading scorer Zia Cooke to turn the page when things don’t go her way.
It was evident with Cooke’s play against Alabama the message has gotten through.
Cooke had 12 of her 21 points in the third quarter to lead No. 4 South Carolina to a 87-63 victory over Alabama on Sunday.
Cooke, who was averaging almost 16 points a game, had picked up two fouls in the game’s first four minutes and spent much of the opening half on the bench.
Once Cooke took the floor for the final two quarters, she was physically fresh and mentally ready to take control.
“I feel like I’m just getting started as far as maturing and realizing what I need to do out there,” Cooke said. “It’s just the beginning and I hope I can continue turning the page.”
Cooke led the way in a 15-5 surge to start the third quarter for South Carolina (14-1, 9-0 Southeastern Conference), which won its 18th straight over Alabama and 28th in a row over Southeastern Conference competition.
Staley was happy that Cooke, the lightning-quick, 5-foot-9 guard, was prepared to strike with the Gamecocks down 41-40 at the half.
“Zia loves to play basketball,” Staley said. “When she got back out, she had a ton of energy.”
Aliyah Boston got the decisive stretch started with a go-ahead layup. Soon after, Cooke hit a 3-pointer and a pair of driving layups as South Carolina moved ahead 51-46. When Cooke added another three a minute later, the Gamecocks were up 58-46 and would not be caught.
“It’s just a flow thing for me,” Cooke explained about her shooting.
Alabama (12-4, 5-4) looked for a while like it was ready to end its long losing streak to the Gamecocks, who last lost to the Crimson Tide in 2008 before coach Dawn Staley arrived.
This time, though, the Crimson Tide took advantage of open shots early and shoddy defense near the end of the opening half to lead 41-40 – just the fourth time this season South Carolina has trailed at the break.
Lewis hit a pair of 3s and Abrams another from long distance as Alabama opened a 16-8 lead. After South Carolina rallied to open a seven-point lead, Walker hit a pair of 3s and Destiny Rice drove a wide-open lane to put the Crimson Tide ahead.
Cooke and Boston were just 3 of 11 shooting the first two quarters and South Carolina missed 11 of its final 15 shots in the second period.
Things changed after halftime as Cooke powered South Carolina to its 11th consecutive win since its lone loss, a 54-46 defeat to No. 2 North Carolina State on Dec. 3.
Jordan Lewis led Alabama with 19 points while Jasmine Walker had 15 before fouling out.
Alabama coach Kristy Curry thought her team played strongly, but the shots that fell early did not the final two quarters.
“If our kids can continue to stay the course,” she said. “We’re right where we want to be.”
The Gamecocks had three others with double-figure scoring: Destanni Henderson had 14 points, Brea Beal had 11 and Victaria Saxton 10.
Henderson also had seven assists and six rebounds.
Boston posted her second straight game with single-figure scoring, the 14.2-point a game performer managing just 6 points on 2-of-10 shooting. The 6-5 Boston did have a team high 13 rebounds, six assists and three blocks.
THE BIG PICTURE
Alabama: The Crimson Tide have had a strong showing this season – their 5-3 SEC start entering this game was its best since 1997-98 – and have had reliable scoring in Lewis and Jasmine Walker. But, like a lot of teams, they don’t have strength to hang with South Carolina for four quarters.
South Carolina: Expect the Gamecocks climb closer to the top in the next rankings. Along with two more decisive SEC victories this week, South Carolina should benefits from losses by No. 2 North Carolina State and No. 3 UConn.
South Carolina’s pregame included a moment of silence and video board tribute to the late Temple coach John Chaney, who coached at the school while Dawn Staley began her college career with Owls. Staley wore a T-shirt Sunday from one of her former Temple assistants had with Chaney’s words, “Winning is an attitude.”
Alabama hit 16 of 32 shots for 41 points in the first two quarters. That changed in a big way after halftime as the Crimson Tide made just 8 of 34 field goals for 22 points the last 20 minutes.
Alabama plays its third straight ranked opponent when it faces No. 22 Georgia on Thursday night.
South Carolina goes to Auburn on Thursday night.