South Carolina Scare: Defending champs hold off Aggies 63-52

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South Carolina Scare: Defending champs hold off Aggies 63-52
South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson, right, drives to the hoop against North Carolina A&T center Alexis Lessears, left, during the first half of game in the first-round of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Friday, March 16, 2018, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A’ja Wilson had 19 points and 16 rebounds to lead South Carolina to a 63-52 victory over North Carolina A&T on Friday night after the 15th-seeded Aggies threw a serious scare into the defending national champions in the women’s NCAA Tournament’s Albany Regional.

South Carolina (27-6) was up 39-21 at the half and seemed ready to cruise to their seventh straight NCAA win and ninth consecutive opening-round game. Instead, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament champ outhustled and outplayed the Southeastern Conference tourney winners much of the final 20 minutes.

The Gamecocks were still ahead 53-37 after Doniyah Cliney’s layup with 8:44 to go. Then the Aggies took off on a 14-5 run that cut the margin to 58-51 on Kala Green’s third 3-pointer of the period with 3:22 remaining. That was as close as North Carolina A&T (23-9) got as the Gamecocks held on to advance to a Sunday second-round game with Virginia, the program that South Carolina coach put on the map with three Final Four appearances more than a quarter-century ago.

Virginia, the 10th seed, topped No. 7 seed Cal 68-62 earlier Friday.

South Carolina, seeded second, will need a stronger effort than this if they hope to advance to Albany, New York.

No one was immune to the struggles. While Wilson put up her 22nd double-double this season and 52nd of her career, she was just 6 of 15 from the field and bottled up much of the game by North Carolina A&T’s defense. Alexis Jennings, expected to replace Alaina Coates as a second low-post option, had 10 boards but just seven points — all on foul shots.

Point guard Tyasha Harris, the SEC’s leader in assists, was just 1 of 5 from the field with one assist.

Freshman Bianca Jackson was South Carolina’s only other double-figure scorer with 16 points.

Green led the Aggies with 21 points off five 3-pointers. North Carolina A&T fell to 0-4 in the NCAA Tournament, although this was closest margin of defeat in those games.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina A&T: The Aggies showed grit and toughness in the final two quarters, something that seemed to take South Carolina by surprise. North Carolina A&T packed their players around Wilson, making it near impossible for her to get open looks. They forced 11 turnovers the final 20 minutes.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks need to get their game in gear. After winning a fourth straight SEC Tournament title nearly two weeks ago, South Carolina looked sluggish and disinterested for long stretches. That will not sit well with coach Dawn Staley and will cost the team down the road.

UP NEXT

South Carolina will play its final home game of the season against No. 10 seed Virginia on Sunday.