COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley couldn’t be happier with the way her top-ranked team has responded to difficult situations this season.
The Gamecocks did it once more Sunday, starting fast to defeat LSU 66-59 for their 31st straight Southeastern Conference victory.
The week didn’t begin how Staley wanted with a loss Monday to No. 2 UConn just hours after South Carolina returned to No. 1. But her team finished the week with a pair of SEC victories as it chases more league championships.
“I’m pretty happy with how our team approaches each game,” Staley said.
A season ago, the Gamecocks had the luxury of talented senior leaders in point guard Tyasha Harris and forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan as they swept the league’s regular-season and tournament titles to finish 32-1.
This group, Staley acknowledged, was more of a long-term project with Destanni Henderson taking over Harris’ role and several forwards without much experience taking over for Herbert Harrigan.
They’ve risen to the occasion for South Carolina (17-2, 12-0 SEC).
Henderson scored 19 points and Aliyah Boston added 12 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks as the Gamecocks beat LSU for a 12th straight time.
Boston’s double-double was her 10th this season and 23rd of her career. Zia Cooke added 13 points for the Gamecocks.
Jailin Cherry had a career-high 19 points to lead LSU (8-10, 6-6). Faustine Aifuwa had 11 points and 12 rebounds, her ninth double-double this season for the Tigers.
LSU coach Nikki Fargas was pleased her team rallied in the fourth quarter to tighten the game. The Tigers forced eight South Carolina turnovers in the final period.
“When the ball goes in the hoop for us, it allows us to set up our press,” Fargas said.
Henderson had her second consecutive standout performance after she acknowledged her failures – the junior point guard had eight turnovers – in a 63-59 overtime loss at No. 2 UConn on Monday night that likely will drop South Carolina from the top spot when the new rankings come out Monday.
Henderson, who had seven points during a decisive third-quarter run in Thursday’s win over Missouri, picked up where she left off against LSU.
The Gamecocks used a 12-0 run and some tight defense in the opening quarter to build a big lead that LSU could not overcome. The Tigers trailed by 18 in the third quarter before getting within single digits at the end.
Cooke started the run with a jumper and two foul shots. Henderson hit a basket and Boston followed with two inside shots before Henderson scored the next five points.
Henderson kept the pressure on LSU with a sweet driving, left-handed layup and a long 3 as South Carolina went up 27-13.
Henderson finished with three of South Carolina’s four 3-pointers.
“In the first half, we were moving the ball, there was a flow,” Henderson said.
LSU struggled to hit shots, missing eight straight during one stretch. The Tigers were sloppy handling the ball, too, with 11 first-half turnovers.
LSU: The Tigers have lost their past three games and fell to 1-4 against ranked teams. Things don’t get easier the final two weeks of the regular season; they face ranked opponents Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi State down the stretch.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks, which will drop from the top spot in the new rankings, seem to have put away the disappointment of losing to UConn.
Staley knew she had to get some experience for her bench players with the SEC Tournament less than three weeks away and the NCAA Tournament soon after that. She found time for reserves Laeticia Amihere, Destiny Littleton and Eniya Russell in the final quarter. Although LSU cut the margin, the experience gained will “switch us from a good team to a great team,” Cooke said as she watched from the bench down the stretch.
The SEC regular-season win was the 150th in Staley’s 12 seasons. She tied Texas A&M’s Gary Blair for the most league wins among active coaches.
LSU faces No. 20 Kentucky on Thursday night.
South Carolina visits No. 16 Tennessee on Thursday night.