COLUMBIA, S.C. – A’ja Wilson was racing down the court with less than a minute to play Monday night as Mississippi State’s Victoria Vivians ran into the open court headed for a layup to snatch a 1-point lead away from the Gamecocks. Then out of the corner of her eye, Wilson caught a glimpse of Allisha Gray in a full-out sprint chasing down the play from behind.
Gray caught up and went up, doing enough to alter Vivians’ shot, which fell harmlessly off the front of the rim and South Carolina’s lead remained safe to the delight of a gripped crowd.
“That sprint at the end – oh my gosh, that was wonderful,” Wilson said. “Gosh. Shout out to Lish.”
That was one of the many plays that Gray made in the second half of No. 5 South Carolina’s thrilling 64-61 win against No. 4 Mississippi State on Monday night at Colonial Life Arena.
The junior guard seemingly always was the catalyst for the Gamecocks in the final 20 minutes of the game, hitting huge shots, chasing down offensive rebounds and forcing turnovers.
Gray, who had one first-half point, scored in a bevy of ways, draining deep 3s, pump faking and getting points at the rim, as well as making free throws. She scored 16 points in the second half, fueling a 13-2 third-quarter run that brought South Carolina back into a win that put it in sole possession of first place in the SEC.
“We knew once she got in her rhythm, she was going to start hitting shots that we needed her to hit,” senior center Alaina Coates said. “When she did hit them, especially in the moment, we were all emotional. We all believe in her and believe that she can do it. It was definitely something we knew was coming. We just had to be patient for her to be ready to let it go.”
Gray opened the second half with a 3-pointer, hit a pair of free throws then came up with a steal that led to a Tyasha Harris 3-pointer to give USC the lead and send Colonial Life Arena into bedlam. But Gray’s next play was even better, as he hit a deep 3-pointer and drew a foul, bringing the crowd to its feet and her teammates into a frenzy on the bench.
“Allisha has been getting in the gym a lot,” Wilson said. “She has been going to practice early, staying after practice, she has been getting those shots up. Those are the practice shots for her.”
Gray also had five second-half rebounds, including three on the offensive glass as she snagged missed free throws, deflected balls off Mississippi State players and was always around the ball.
But it was her scoring that made a huge difference in the second half, as coach Dawn Staley noted that at halftime her guards had not made a huge impact on the game offensively. So she drew up plays for Gray coming out and the junior made the most of the opportunities.
“When you know you are going to get the ball and you feel a little bit more comfortable and you relax a little bit and not press,” Staley said. “Usually, in these type of games, she presses a little bit and shoot some ill-advised shots. She waited patiently and they forgot about her. That’s how you want the game to go at times, especially with this type of game.”
Gray opened the fourth quarter with the same impact, pump faking and driving for a layup before she made a steal and made another layup on the following possession.
She saved the best for her last impact, though, when she chased down Vivians to keep South Carolina ahead and in position for a monumental victory.
“I just felt like, at times, different players stepped up,” Staley said. “Whether it was Allisha Gray sprinting back to deter a wide-open layup on Vivians at the end of the game. It was those type of play that our players need to see. It had an impact on the game. They would have gone up at that point. It is moments like that that we are constantly looking for our players to execute. They did it tonight.”