No. 19 Texas A&M 61, No. 17 S. Carolina 52
By GEORGE HENRY
DULUTH, Ga. — Coach Gary Blair knew Texas A&M wouldn’t have an easy time matching up with South Carolina’s physical style of play.
“I thought the key in the ballgame is that we were able to withstand,” Blair said. “We went into halftime up by 3 and we were barely surviving.”
Kristi Bellock scored 17 points, Karla Gilbert added 11 in a reserve role and No. 19 Texas A&M beat No. 17 South Carolina 61-52 in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals Friday.
The Aggies (22-9) snapped a three-game losing streak and will play No. 9 Tennessee in the semifinals Saturday.
Ashley Bruner finished with 19 points and Ieasia Walker added 15 for South Carolina (24-7).
Gilbert emerged at a critical time for Texas A&M, which survived a scare early in the second half when All-SEC center and Gamecock transfer Kelsey Bone fell to the floor with a leg injury.
Bone later returned wearing a right knee brace after missing about 6 minutes, but the outlook was hardly encouraging after she limped off the floor, and South Carolina soon took its first lead on Bruner’s layup.
Fortunately for the Aggies, Gilbert effectively used her 6-foot-5 frame to block out the Gamecocks’ front line for rebounds and put-backs. In a season-high 21 minutes, Gilbert hit all three field-goal attempts and went 5 for 7 on free throws.
Her presence helped Texas A&M go on an 11-1 run before Bone returned and made it 48-40 with a put-back at the 8:24 mark.
Less than 2 minutes later, Bone’s free throw gave the Aggies an 11-point lead.
“The bench is very important,” Gilbert said. “Obviously, we do not have a lot of 40-minute players, so it’s very important for the people to come off the bench and be ready. If we bank on that and keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”
The Gamecocks, who failed to make the SEC semifinals for a second straight year, were coming off a dominant win over Alabama, but they missed too many shots inside to gain momentum in the first half.
It was a familiar pattern for a team that ranked next-to-last in SEC scoring this season despite having the nation’s sixth-best scoring defense.
“It just came down to us making layups,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “You count how many layups we missed and then we missed 10 free throws. I don’t know if we would have won, but it would have made it more interesting.”
South Carolina’s biggest deficit was 12 on Bellock’s free throw with 6:26 left. The Gamecocks were essentially finished after Courtney Walker’s steal led to a layup by Bellock that pushed the lead to nine with 1:34 remaining.
Pratcher scored eight points, but she was just 3 for 14 from the field. Bone and Walker each added seven points.
Courtney Williams pulled down 11 rebounds for the Aggies, who are playing in their first SEC tournament. Bruner had 11 boards for South Carolina.
Bellock is excited that Texas A&M gets another shot at Tennessee. The Aggies lost 82-72 in Knoxville last week.
“The first time around it wasn’t really a good game for us,” Bellock said. “We just need to come out with more energy and do what we do and not let them dictate what we do.”