COLUMBIA - No. 7 South Carolina and No. 15 Missouri shook hands before the starting lineups were introduced. The pleasantries ended after that.
A'ja Wilson had 15 points, hitting the go-ahead basket with 4:13 left, and Gamecocks outlasted the Tigers 64-54 on Sunday night in a hard-fought game that included an on-court tussle and two Missouri ejections.
The bad feelings were stirred from a game three weeks ago at Missouri where Wilson fouled out and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was ejected for arguing about the Tigers' physical play. Things boiled over once more in the second quarter when Missouri's Kayla Michael and South Carolina's Alexis Jennings fought for a rebound and crashed hard to the floor. Players from both sides ran in as shoving and bumping took play. Missouri reserves Jordan Roundtree and Nadia Green were ejected for coming off the bench to join the scrum.
"Emotions, passion, I thought it was a battle," Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. "That was a tough one."
And it came down to the final few minutes.
The Gamecocks (18-3, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) saw their 48-41, fourth-quarter lead evaporate after Amber Smith's two straight buckets to tie the game at 49-all. That's when South Carolina's All-American in Wilson rebounded a miss by teammate LeLe Grissett and put it right back up to move the Gamecocks back on top.
Jennings, who had missed her first four shots, then followed with back-to-back baskets as South Carolina built a 57-49 lead in the final minute. The Tigers (17-4, 5-3) could not respond and the Gamecocks got a measure of revenge from their Missouri loss.
The crowd of more than 13,000 rarely let the Tigers forget their anger about that defeat. They booed Tigers star Sophie Cunningham nearly every time she touched the ball. The Missouri junior found her way into the tussle, first getting shoved by South Carolina's Doniyah Cliney, then bumping Jennings hard were her shoulder as she walked off the court.
Officials took about 15 minutes looking at video of the altercation. Cunningham and Cliney were assessed unsportsmanlike fouls.
Cunningham led Missouri with 18 points and eight rebounds.
Missouri did not make players available to the media.
Wilson said the Gamecocks treated this game like every other one. Staley said her players studied film of their last two matchups - both Missouri wins - and knew they'd take some shots. "They just don't want to go into a game unprotected," Staley said. "Our first thing is making sure everyone's OK."
Cunningham kept grinding to the end, even sending Wilson a reminder of what might be ahead in the league tournament as the Missouri player bumped her on the way into the locker room after the final buzzer.
"It's all love and game," Wilson said, smiling.
Tyasha Harris had 19 points for South Carolina, which won its fourth straight, while Wilson had a game-best 15 rebounds for her 13th game with double figure points and rebounds this season. The two-time defending SEC player of the year also had four blocks.
Missouri: When the Tigers get Cunningham some help, they are a ferocious group. That was far from the case against the Gamecocks and Missouri paid for it. Starters Jordan Frericks and Amber Smith were a combined 8-of-20 shooting. Another starter in Cierra Porter played just nine minutes because of foul trouble.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks got their pivot stretch off to the right start. With last year's starters in Alaina Coates, Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis off to the WNBA, many wondered if South Carolina had enough pieces to make another run in the SEC and beyond. They've got a couple of more tests ahead, starting Thursday night against undefeated and top-ranked UConn. After that the Gamecocks travel to No. 2 Mississippi State, a team that lost three times - including the SEC and NCAA title games - to the Gamecocks.
Wilson spent zero time thinking about South Carolina's upcoming matchup with No. 1 UConn leading up to Missouri. She believes that approach will help this week as they prep for the playing the Huskies for a fourth straight season. "I don't think this is a confidence booster," she said. "We know who we are and we're going to continue to be who we are."
South Carolina point guard Tyasha Harris was bothered that Missouri sagged off her at times to concentrate on the Gamecocks post players down low. So Harris gladly made them pay. She hit two of the Gamecocks' seven 3-pointers and came up with clutch outside shooting whenever South Carolina saw its margin shrink. "It's a little disrespectful," Harris said. "I took it to heart."
Missouri plays its third straight ranked opponent when it faces No. 2 Mississippi State on Thursday night.
South Carolina looks to break its 0-5 mark all-time against No. 1 UConn at home Thursday night.
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