Gamecocks win fifth SEC Championship in six years
GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) - "Mad Kiki" is a believer in South Carolina at last.
It was almost a year ago when Mikiah Herbert Harrigan came to coach Dawn Staley saying she wasn't happy at South Carolina and wanted to transfer.
So after Herbert Harrigan, nicknamed "Mad Kiki" earned SEC tournament MVP honors following the top-ranked Gamecocks' 76-62 victory over No. 9 Mississippi State on Sunday, Staley made sure to catch up with her senior star.
"I know you didn't envision this a few months ago," Staley said she told Herbert Harrigan. "She said, 'I didn't. But now I'm a believer.'"
The rest of the country is, too, as Herbert Harrigan had 15 points and Brea Beal added 12 points and 11 rebounds as South Carolina (32-1) won its fifth SEC tournament title in six seasons.
Herbert Harrigan, a 6-foot-2 forward, was a reserve on the 2017 national champions and thought she might get lost among the Gamecocks' No. 1 recruiting class. Instead, Herbert Harrigan has led the way both with her play and her emotion.
Herbert Harrigan got into a scuffle with Mississippi State's Yemiah Morris and Jessika Carter in the second quarter, living up to that nickname.
"I like it," she said. "I do."
The Gamecocks won their 26th straight and should be the No. 1 overall seed - along with the favorite - in the NCAA Tournament.
"If they do have a hole, it ain't very big," Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said.
They proved their superiority once more by running away - the Gamecocks led by 27 in the second half - from the usually powerful Bulldogs (27-6), who suffered their biggest defeat since falling to Tennessee 82-64 in February 2017.
The Gamecocks celebrated as blue, white and yellow streamers fell over the court. The loud, pro-South Carolina crowd - the arena is less than two hours' drive south of campus - roared its approval.
"Look at us. Look at this team," Staley told the fans. "It's special."
Herbert Harrigan had 44 points in the three games as South Carolina won by an average margin of 24 points.
Herbert Harrigan and Beal also each had three of South Carolina's 11 blocks.
Tyasha Harris had 10 points and 10 assists for South Carolina. Freshman Aliyah Boston had 11 rebounds, her 16th game this season with double-figure boards.
Herbert Harrigan stepped in after Morris appeared to give Boston a hard shove following a rebound.
"It's just really fun playing out there with this group of girls," Herbert Harrigan said. "It just feels great."
Mississippi State stressed the importance of a fast start in competing with South Carolina. The Bulldogs, instead, were as cold as they've been all season.
They finished with their fewest points at the break this season in trailing 38-22. The Bulldogs shot 33.8% (26 of 77), their poorest showing this season.
Aliyah Matharu led Mississippi State with 17 points. Freshman Rickea Jackson, the team's leading scorer who had 52 points the past two tournament games, was held to nine points on 4-of-12 shooting.
This was also the latest in South Carolina's run of wins over Mississippi State in big moments.
The Gamecocks' previous three SEC tournament titles all came with the Bulldogs in the finals. And in 2017, South Carolina topped Mississippi State in the national championship game.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs will certainly start the NCAA Tournament with two games at home. After that, it will depend on the draw. A team like Oregon or Baylor that excels in turning tight defense into transition offense could give them a difficult path to the Final Four.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks are probably the strongest bet in the field that gets announced on March 16 to make the Final Four. South Carolina won't have to leave its home state until the national semifinals in New Orleans as it plays the first two games on campus before a return to Greenville for the regional.
South Carolina's Staley had the arena's netting around her neck - she calls it a "netlace" - and was hoarse from shouting and celebrating with players, coaches and fans. "I mean, I'm happy for our players," she said.
A 10-3 run to open the second quarter turned an eight-point lead into a 15-point advantage as four different Gamecocks scored in the first 3:30 of the period as the defense ramped up with two steals and two blocked shots to keep the Bulldogs at bay.
The Gamecocks dominated the areas they wanted to - out-rebounding Mississippi State 53-42, out-scoring the Bulldogs in the paint 52-34 and driving home 25 fast-break points.
- The Gamecocks won their fifth SEC Tournament title in the last six seasons, bringing home the trophy every time they have played in the title game.
- Mikiah Herbert Harrigan was named SEC Tournament MVP, and guards Tyasha Harris and Destanni Henderson joined her on the All-Tournament Team. Herbert Harrigan averaged 14.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game at the event. Harris turned in 12.0 points and 7.3 assists, while Henderson netted 13.0 points and 4.7 assists per game at the tournament.
- South Carolina is just the second team in SEC Tournament history to have two players register double-doubles in the title game - Brea Beal 12 points/11 rebounds, Tyasha Harris 10 points, 10 assists.
- After pouring in a season-high 12 3-pointers in the semifinals, the Gamecocks became the first team to win the SEC Tournament title without hitting a 3 in the championship game.
- Herbert Harrigan's three blocks in the championship game moved her into a tie with Alaina Coates for second all-time on the Gamecocks' career blocks lists (210).
The Gamecocks await their NCAA Tournament assignment, which will come on Mon., March 16, at 7 p.m. during the NCAA Selection Show.