By TIM LIOTTA
LOS ANGELES — South Carolina is ranked second in the country, but these aren’t quite last season’s Gamecocks.
South Carolina struggled mightily Sunday against pesky UCLA, needing Tiffany Mitchell to score six of her 17 points in a decisive late run to pull out a 68-65 victory.
“We are still working through what our identity is,” coach Dawn Staley said about her team, which advanced to the Final Four last season.
“We were a very good basketball team last year. Some of our players are changing roles, and they have to work their way into playing those roles.”
Tina Roy also had 17 points for South Carolina (4-0), and Alaina Coates had 12 points and 12 rebounds even though the Bruins (2-1) effectively limited South Carolina’s size advantage with their 2-3 zone.
“Normally our guards can set things up for us to turn and shoot without thinking,” Coates said. “We weren’t able to do that tonight.”
Against a defense that repeatedly denied the entry pass, the Gamecocks committed 21 turnovers. They struggled to come up with an alternative to their inside game despite a height advantage that enabled them to out-rebound the Bruins 45-31.
“We weren’t caught off-guard,” Mitchell said. “We knew they were good. We knew they’d be pretty aggressive, jumpy. We came out and played too fast. The unforced turnovers set us back a bit.”
Jordin Canada scored 21 points and Nirra Fields added 17, but UCLA lost its 19th straight game against a ranked opponent, dating to Nov. 24, 2013, when they beat No. 10 Oklahoma 82-76.
Out of a timeout, the Gamecocks broke a 58-58 tie with A’ja Wilson’s lay-in off an alley-oop with 3:50 to play.
“That play gave one of our big players an easy look, and there weren’t many of those tonight,” Staley said. “It gave us a little more energy to play defense down the stretch.
After Mitchell and Fields exchanged basketball, Mitchell added a layup for a 64-62 lead.
The Gamecocks forced a turnover, and Coates scored on a layup off a breakaway feed from Mitchell with 58 seconds left, giving South Carolina a 66-60 lead.
South Carolina was called for a flagrant foul and Canada made two free throws with 34.8 seconds left, but Fields missed a 3-pointer off the ensuing inbound play.
After two free throws by Mitchell with 21 seconds left, UCLA failed to score until Kacy Swain banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“Down the stretch, South Carolina played like they know how to play,” said UCLA Coach Cori Close. “There were some minutes they played to who they are and we lost that just for a second. That’s the difference. I told (the Bruins) to let this feeling teach your hearts to close the gap between good and great.”
With the victory, the senior class on the South Carolina roster improves its four-year record to 89-16, with a chance to eclipse the school record four-year mark of 113 victories set by the 2015 senior class.
South Carolina: Staley is using her team’s nonconference schedule to get players as much experience as possible. Nine players averaged at least 14.7 minutes per game over the first three 2015-16 contests, with four averaging double-digits in scoring. This game marked the third regular-season trip to the Pacific Time Zone during the Staley era. The Gamecocks played Stanford and UC Davis in 2010-11, and lost both games. They played Southern Cal and San Diego State in 2013-14, and won both games.
UCLA: The Bruins played South Carolina once before, on Jan. 5, 1981. While The Gamecocks won the game 86-81, they later forfeited the victory for using a player that was academically ineligible. The Bruins return four starters, including three who averaged double-figures in scoring, from their 19-18 team in 2014-15.
South Carolina: Vs. Arizona State in the Waikiki Beach Marriott Rainbow Wahine Showdown on Friday.
UCLA: Home against Louisiana Tech on Friday.