No. 10 South Carolina women top Winthrop 69-61

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Tiffany Mitchell doesn't mind having the ball in her hands at the biggest moments for No. 10 South Carolina.

"She would want to take those shots and more if it was up to her," Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said, with a smile.

Mitchell scored 20 points, including a crucial basket to thwart Winthrop's late charge in a 69-61 victory Friday. Mitchell was on target against the Eagles of the Big South Conference, making 7 of 9 field goals. Four of those were 3-pointers, including one where she got fouled and converted the free throw for a four-point play.

Her biggest basket, though, came after Winthrop cut a 19-point lead down to 61-57 in the final four minutes, her jump shot increasing the Gamecocks lead to eight points. The Eagles could get no closer than five points the rest of the way.

"I think (Staley) is most comfortable, when we need big shots, to put the ball in my hands," said Mitchell, a 5-foot-9 sophomore guard. "Not necessarily to have me shooting the ball, but to get people open as well."

Mitchell said the other go-to player is Aleighsa Welch, who added 14 points on 4 of 7 shooting.

The Gamecocks looked like they'd make easy work of Winthrop in the noon game, rushing out to a 14-0 lead in front of grade-school children on holiday break. South Carolina eventually led 33-14.

That's when Winthrop, a 20-win team last year, turned up its defense and nearly stole one from the Gamecocks.

"I actually think we relaxed a little bit on them and they came and slapped us in the face," Tiffany Davis said. "Kind of unexpected."

Erica Williams' jumper with 4:34 left drew Winthrop to 59-55. Mitchell then added a bucket to increase South Carolina's lead.

Schaquilla Nunn's put-back brought Winthrop within four points before Asia Dozier's two foul shots and Mitchell's jumper extended the margin to 65-57 with 1:55 to play.

Dozier had 13 points for the Gamecocks.

Dequesha McClanahan and Williams had 19 points each for the Eagles. McClanahan, who had averaged more than 21 points this season, fouled out on a drive to the basket with under three minutes to go.

Winthrop coach Kevin Cook said his team packed in the middle to negate the Gamecocks' size adavantage.

"But that young lady (Mitchell) made us pay," he said.

On Wednesday night, Mitchell struggled along with her teammates, going 4 for 13 from the floor in a 74-66 loss to No. 14 North Carolina, the first defeat of the season for the Gamecocks (10-1).

The Gamecocks played without starting point guard Khadijah Sessions, who injured her left ankle in the North Carolina loss. Sessions was on crutches on the bench. She's also expected to miss South Carolina's game with South Carolina State on Sunday.

But the Gamecocks started fast Friday afternoon and opened a 14-0 lead in less than five minutes behind Elem Ibiam and Dozier.

However, Winthrop forced the Gamecocks into a season-high 20 turnovers.

Sessions' replacement, Davis, finished with only three points. She also drew the ire of coach Dawn Staley after a late turnover led to an open shot by McClanahan to end the half at 37-23.

South Carolina's defensive struggles continued in the second half when Winthrop tightened up the game with a 17-8 run. Cook said his team did a good job of taking advantage of the Gamecocks' mistakes to put up more points than South Carolina typically allows.

"We just kept running. We're a go-go team," Cook said. "They're used to holding people to about 50 a game. We scored 61. I'd have like to have scored nine more."