COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — It’s great having young talent. It’s even nicer, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley says, when you’ve got some experience to lead the way, too.
Gamecock seniors Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris combined for 31 points as their younger teammates struggled a bit in their postseason debut to lead No. 1 South Carolina to its 24th straight win, beating Georgia 89-56 to start the SEC Tournament on Friday.
Herbert Harrigan had 16 points and Harris 15. Both were on the South Carolina’s NCAA Tournament winners in 2017 and are looking to lead the young Gamecocks to more titles this season.
Much has been made this season about the Gamecocks freshmen starters of Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal. But Herbert Harrigan and Harris have been the guiding forces behind South Carolina’s season so far.
“They have experience at winning (tournaments), they have the experience at exiting it early,” Staley said. “This year, they are leading our basketball team in wanting to win it.”
The Gamecocks (30-1), the regular-season champs and tournament’s top seed, reached the 30-win mark for fourth time in the past six seasons and beat the ninth-seeded Bulldogs (17-14) for the 12th straight game.
Herbert Harrigan and Harris, the last players left from the 2017 national champions, were front and center as they have been all season.
“They push everybody to the limit,” said LeLe Grissett, a reserve forward. “They want nothing but greatness from you.”
The senior duo combined for six of the Gamecocks’ first 10 points and kept pushing the tempo after the team had opened a double-digit lead. Harris hit a 3-pointer to cap a 13-3 run that made it 45-28.
The Gamecocks will play No. 25 Arkansas, which ended their try at a fifth-straight league tournament title here a year ago, in the semifinals Saturday.
South Carolina’s stellar freshman class, so smooth much of the season, was not as steady in its first taste of the postseason.
Guards Cooke and Beal were a combined 2-of-7 shooting for nine points.
Boston, the 6-foot-5 newcomer, continued controlling the middle with 10 rebounds and four of South Carolina’s 12 blocked shots. Reserves Laeticia Amihere and Victaria Saxton had three blocks apiece for the Gamecocks.
Jenna Staiti led Georgia with 16 points, only two of them coming in the final two quarters.
South Carolina had a new mission this week — getting its young team ready for postseason. Staley was concerned about her newcomers handling a five-day layoff before a three-games-in-three days tournament gauntlet.
And South Carolina struggled at times early to find its consistency.
“I thought we were a little rattled early on,” Staley said.
The Bulldogs had a chance to go in front, trailing 16-15, in the first quarter’s final minute when South Carolina ran off seven points.
THE BIG PICTURE
Georgia: The Bulldogs fell apart whenever South Carolina turned up the pressure. They had 12 turnovers in the game’s first 11 minutes, including five in a row as the Gamecocks built a double-digit lead. Both losses to South Carolina this season came by 30-plus points.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks were boosted by their seniors, who know a thing or two about celebrating titles. The pair have combined for two regular-season SEC titles, two SEC tournament titles and the 2017 national crown.
OFF THE BENCH
South Carolina got 40 points from its reserves against Georgia, a sign of depth that Staley believes will help her team in the postseason. Backups Grissett, Saxton and Destanni Henderson all had double-figure points.
The Bulldogs have won four of their last seven with those losses all coming to ranked team. Georgia coach Joni Taylor thought her team has grown since the beginning of the season and is deserving of a postseason bid. “That’s not my decision,” she said with a smile.
Georgia awaits a potential postseason berth.
South Carolina plays No. 25 Arkansas in the SEC seminfinals Saturday.