OXFORD, Miss. – Pushed to the brink, Zia Cooke and South Carolina finally exerted control once the game went into overtime.
Cooke scored five of her 24 points in overtime to help the No. 1 Gamecocks remain unbeaten with a 64-57 victory over Mississippi on Sunday.
The defending national champion Gamecocks (27-0, 14-0 Southeastern Conference) got one of their biggest scares of the season before winning their 33rd straight game. The Rebels (20-7, 9-5) never trailed by more than six points in regulation and flirted with their first win over a No. 1 team in 46 years.
“They were locked in,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “They played their zone and were committed to it, and we didn’t handle it well until we actually had to. So it was a good gameplan.”
She called the Rebels “an NCAA Tournament team,” and they certainly looked the part.
Cooke had six rebounds and four assists to help off-set a 7-of-18 shooting performance. Aliyah Boston added 13 points and 11 rebounds on 4-of-14 shooting and didn’t score in the first quarter.
The deep Gamecocks didn’t get their usual supply of scoring help for the two stars, though Kamilla Cardoso had eight points and 11 boards.
Angel Baker led Ole Miss with 17 points. Snudda Collins added 11 while Marquesha Davis had nine points and seven rebounds. Rita Igbokwe blocked six shots.
Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin began her postgame news conference with a big sigh.
“Tough one. Man, today was an incredibly emotional game for me, our players, everybody,” she said. “I just grew up looking up to Dawn Staley. I just have so much respect for her as a person. She has become a mentor of mine.
“To be able to take them into overtime and have an opportunity to win after being our third game of the week was incredible.”
It was only the third single-digit margin and second overtime game for the defending national champions, who had been winning by an average of 33.5 points. The first two came against No. 3 Stanford (76-71 in overtime) and No. 6 UConn (81-77). South Carolina dominated overtime, 9-2.
Cooke’s second basket of overtime matched South Carolina’s biggest lead to that point, 63-57, with 1:33 left. The teams swapped turnovers but Ole Miss missed three shots trying to stay alive, including two straight 3-point tries by Baker after offensive rebounds.
Cooke, who had scored South Carolina’s first eight points of the game, then made one of two foul shots.
Ole Miss had rallied from a six-point deficit over the final 7 minutes to force overtime.
Baker had a steal and layup and then gave Ole Miss its first lead since the opening minutes with a jumper to go up 55-54 with 1:20 left. Then Igbokwe blocked two shots by Boston to preserve the edge.
With 30 seconds left, Boston made 1 of 2 free throws to tie it up. Ole Miss turned it over without getting a shot off, and Boston couldn’t make one at the buzzer as South Carolina finished regulation on a 1-of-11 slump.
Overtime was a different story.
“I thought we just were calculating in where we wanted the ball to go and our posts (players) came through,” Staley said.
South Carolina: Made only 23 of 61 shots (37.7%) but outrebounded the Rebels 49-36. The nation’s top scoring defense put the clamps on in overtime.
Ole Miss: Has dropped 17 in a row against South Carolina. … Had six players with two points in the first quarter, trailing 16-12. … The 1977 team had beaten eventual national champion and No. 1 Delta State 73-72 in Oxford.
Ole Miss has come a long way since McPhee-McCuin remembers about 500 fans (officially, 1,225) on hand for her first time hosting Staley’s Gamecocks. It was an 87-32 Gamecocks win, but the score was 32-2 at the half.
“Nobody was in the Pavillion and the only reason I remember is because I was embarrassed because I looked up to Dawn,” the Rebels coach said. “And I know she built something and I’m trying to build something.
“And today to hear the fans, they were so engaged and they almost took us to the ‘W’.”
South Carolina visits Tennessee on Thursday night.
Ole Miss hosts Missouri on Thursday night.