Bulldogs’ rally falls short; Lady Vols top Rebels

South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch, right, shoots a layup as Mississippi State forward Breanna Richardson defends. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch, right, shoots a layup as Mississippi State forward Breanna Richardson defends. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Associated Press

STARKVILLE – Elem Ibiam doesn’t attribute to her rapidly rising number of blocked shots to improved footwork, more aggressive play or any sort of coaching maneuver.

Nope, the 6-foot-4 junior said, it’s simply genetics.

“We just put our hands up and it’s easy,” Ibiam said while laughing. “It’s just being taller.”

Aleighsa Welch scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, Ibiam blocked a career-high seven shots and No. 6 South Carolina survived for a tough 71-64 victory over Mississippi State on Thursday night.

Ibiam has 63 blocked shots this season, surpassing the school record of 60 set by Lakesha Tolliver in the 2006-07 season. Alaina Coates added three blocks as South Carolina (21-2, 9-1 SEC) tied a school-record with 14 rejections.

All that defensive dominance might suggest an easy game. That was far from the case.

South Carolina appeared to have the game in hand with a 52-40 lead midway through the second half, but Mississippi State pulled within 55-54 with 6:25 remaining.

The game stayed tight until the final minute when Tina Roy hit a 3-pointer with 50 seconds left to put the Gamecocks ahead 66-59.

“It’s a product of playing in our league,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “There are no easy games. We knew coming into the game that Mississippi State is playing extremely well. They’ve been in every game and it’s only going to be a matter of time before they start winning games like this.”

Mississippi State (16-8, 3-7) lost for just the third time at home this season. Jerica James led the Bulldogs with 11 points. Martha Alwal and Savannah Carter both added 10.

Mississippi State’s offensive tendency to drive played right into South Carolina’s hands. Ibiam blocked five shots in the first half and Coates swatted three more before halftime.

South Carolina pushed ahead early, using an 11-0 run to lead 17-9 less than seven minutes into the game.

But Mississippi State stayed close despite South Carolina’s fierce interior defense. James hit an 18-foot jumper late in the first half to pull the Bulldogs within 34-29 at halftime.

“They made big plays,” Welch said. “A lot of times we’d get caught cheating and it cost us. You’ve got to give credit where it’s due, but I thought we did a good job of answering their runs.”

Mississippi State shot just 21 of 63 (33.3 percent) from the field.

“I love our energy and our effort and passion,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “We just lack a little execution and we have some plays where we’re not smart.”

No. 8 Tennessee 77, Ole Miss 65: Meighan Simmons scored 20 points, including three straight 3-pointers in the second half for the visiting Volunteers.

Tennessee (19-4, 8-2 SEC) was 26 of 61 from the floor (42.6 percent) and finished 18 of 21 from the free throw line.

Ole Miss (10-14, 1-9) challenged a few times in the first half, and even led for brief stretches, but the Lady Vols ended the half on an 18-9 run and led 37-28 at the break.

The game remained tight until 10 minutes into the second half, when Simmons broke it open with her consecutive 3s. The Rebels never mounted another serious challenge.

Tia Faleru led Ole Miss with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Gracie Frizzell scored 15 points, including four 3-pointers.