NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A’ja Wilson screamed, waved four fingers in the air and danced in front of the South Carolina pep band.
Doing something nobody has ever done before deserves a mighty celebration.
Wilson scored 16 points as eighth-ranked South Carolina become the first Southeastern Conference women’s program to win four straight tournament championships Sunday, snapping the nation’s longest winning streak at 32 with a 62-51 upset of No. 2 Mississippi State.
And Wilson was on the court for each tournament victory in an unprecedented run in the SEC. Tennessee with its 17 tourney titles won three in a row twice, the last between 2010 and 2012, but the Lady Vols never made the final with a chance at a four-peat.
“It’s a blessing and an honor,” said Wilson with a net around her neck. “The SEC is a great conference and to make history like that, to be a team that’s gone four times in a row to the championship and won it, it’s a great feeling. I really can’t even put into words the feeling I know I have … So this has been a great tournament.”
The Gamecocks beat Mississippi State yet again with a title on the line. South Carolina beat the Bulldogs <a target=”—blank” href=”https://apnews.com/f144f279319e4cc6b07b3957840150fd”>last April for the program’s first national championship,</a> and now the Gamecocks (26-6) have their third straight SEC tournament title at Mississippi State’s expense.
Mississippi State (32-1) had not lost since that national title game, coming into the SEC tournament final with the Bulldogs’ first regular season championship and hoping a third try at the tournament title would be the charm.
The SEC’s best 3-point shooters struggled outside the arc, and the Bulldogs couldn’t overcome South Carolina’s dominance in the paint with Teaira McCowan limited by foul trouble most of the first half. The Gamecocks held Mississippi State to its fewest points all season.
“Just wasn’t our day offensively,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “And it just was really frustrating from an offensive standpoint because it didn’t matter what string we pulled, it just didn’t work.”
Tyasha Harris added 14 points for South Carolina, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan had 13 and Bianca Jackson 11.
Victoria Vivians led Mississippi State with 17 points, and Morgan William had 10. McCowan, who came in averaging 18.1 points per game, was limited to six points.
“Our kids were engaged and locked into the game plan,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “They did not want to lose. I think they wanted to create their own history, which was to win four SEC tournament championships. And they were determined to do it.”
Wilson came off the bench for the third straight game, checking in with 6:27 left in the first quarter. <a target=”—blank” href=”https://apnews.com/91b375cb8ab94174ac13ffaf130054da/South-Carolina%27s-Wilson-earns-SEC-player-of-the-year-again”>The three-time SEC player of the year</a> quickly scored and stole the ball to spark the Gamecocks to six quick points and the lead. Herbert Harrigan led the Gamecocks with 11 points.
Schaefer kept McCowan on the bench for all but four minutes of the first half with two fouls. Without her in the middle, Mississippi State hit only 1 of 11 shots overall and nothing after Jazzmun Holmes’ jumper with 8:21 to go in the quarter.
The Gamecocks took advantage with nine straight points to push their lead out to 12 — the same lead they held Feb. 5 in Starkville before losing 67-53 to the Bulldogs. They led 30-19 at halftime.
Mississippi State shot much better in the third quarter but never get closer than five with Wilson scoring eight in the quarter.
The Bulldogs rallied from a 12-point deficit Feb. 5 to beat South Carolina 67-53 in Starkville. That day, they outscored South Carolina 28-9 in the fourth quarter. Not with this title on the line. Wilson capped six straight points for the Gamecocks to give them a 56-42 lead with 5:34 left — the biggest margin Misissippi State has faced all season.
In the fourth, the Gamecocks didn’t let Mississippi State get closer than eight.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks outrebounded the Bulldogs 38-23 and had a 36-20 edge scoring in the paint.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs shot 39.8 percent outside the arc during the regular season, best in the SEC and ninth nationally. But they matched their season-low with three made 3s and had their worst shooting at 15.8 percent from 3.
The Gamecocks <a target=”—blank” href=”https://apnews.com/6532b2d8865d417fb0a8b3309b3bea2e/Staley:-Still-unknown-if-Wilson-will-play-in-SEC-Tournament”>came to Nashville not sure if Wilson would play</a> , and she said she had a breakdown with her teammates in her room trying to help them understand what was going on. She credited them with building up her confidence and their trust in each other. “That’s what it takes to win a championship,” Wilson said.
South Carolina: A likely No. 2 seed for the defending national champ when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced March 12.
Mississippi State: A No. 1 seed.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker