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W. Basketball: No. 1 Stanford survives South Carolina

The Stanford women’s basketball team faced one of its toughest challenges so far this season on Wednesday night, narrowly surviving in Columbia, S.C., to defeat South Carolina 53-49 and remain undefeated on the season.

Junior forward Chiney Ogwumike’s seventh consecutive double-double pushed Stanford to a 53-49 win over No. 21 South Carolina on Wednesday night. It was the Cardinal’s lowest scoring total of the season. (NORBERT VON DER GROEBEN/isiPhoto)

The No. 21 Gamecocks (10-1, 0-0 SEC) gave the No. 1 Cardinal (10-0, 0-0 Pac-12) its hardest test since it upset then-No. 1 Baylor in Hawaii in November, keeping visiting Stanford to its lowest score this season. With the win Stanford improves to a 28-28 all-time record against SEC teams and 4-0 against South Carolina.

Stanford junior forward Chiney Ogwumike led the scoring and grabbed her seventh straight double-double, with 21 points and 15 rebounds. Joining her in double figures were junior guard Toni Kokenis and sophomore guard Amber Orrange, with 15 and 11 points, respectively. Six of Kokenis’ points came from clutch free-throw shooting — she was 7-for-7 on the night — that kept Stanford ahead of the Gamecocks in the final seconds of the contest. The other two starting players, senior forwards Joslyn Tinkle and Mikaela Ruef, also contributed well off the boards, combining for 13 rebounds.

Sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch and senior guard Ieasia Walker made important contributions for South Carolina, adding 17 and 15 points, respectively, to their team’s total, both significantly bettering their season averages of 11.9 and 8.6. Shooting accuracy, though, hurt the Gamecocks. The team managed just 28.6 percent from the floor, well below Stanford’s 40.4 percent, and missed crucial free throws that would have given South Carolina the lead late in the game.

The last time these two squads met, Stanford defeated South Carolina 76-60 in the Sweet Sixteen of last season’s NCAA tournament. Since then, the Gamecocks had been undefeated in their best-ever start to a basketball campaign and showed little fear of the Cardinal in this contest.

The Stanford players were guarded closely with a defensive strategy that may not have been pretty, but was certainly effective. The top-ranked team was given no space or time to settle into a rhythm and could not open up enough of a gap over the home team. The Cardinal’s largest lead — seven points — came midway through the first half, but a five-minute scoring drought allowed the Gamecocks to sneak back ahead.

In the second period, South Carolina switched its tactics and began to double-team Ogwumike under the basket. The change worked effectively and the Gamecocks closed to take the lead with 4:35 remaining, but they could not outlast their No. 1 opposition.

Ruef’s layup gave Stanford a two-point lead with 53 seconds left on the clock and crucially, after being fouled by Kokenis, Walker missed her first free throw, meaning South Carolina would have to foul to get the ball back and have any chance of winning. Six perfect shots from the charity stripe by Kokenis in the last 22 seconds ensured that would not happen, even though Walker hit a bucket from outside the arc to keep the pressure on.

Stanford’s perfect record will go back on the line this Saturday in Knoxville, where it faces No. 10 Tennessee (7-2) at 1 p.m. PST. The Lady Volunteers may have lost their last game on the road to No. 3 Baylor, but the Cardinal has not won a game in Thompson-Boling Arena since Dec. 15, 1996, when it defeated Tennessee 82-65, and the Lady Vols own a 22-7 record over the Card.

In a tough break schedule, Stanford will then return to Maples Pavilion a week later to face No. 2 Connecticut (9-0) on Dec. 29. Before school restarts it will open its Pac-12 campaign with road games against No. 25 Colorado (9-0), Utah (8-1) and No. 9 California (8-1), which it will also play again five days later at Maples in back-to-back Battles of the Bay.