GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — No. 5 South Carolina needed a big effort to open the Southeastern Conference Tournament, with all-SEC forward Alaina Coates sidelined again because of an ankle injury. The top-seeded Gamecocks leaned on A'ja Wilson.
The two-time SEC player of the year had 18 points, seven rebounds and seven blocks in a dominant performance to lead the Gamecocks in their chase for a third straight SEC tourney title with a 72-48 victory over Georgia on Friday.
"This was very important, especially with post play," the 6-foot-5 Wilson said. "We showed that we have a lot of energy and it's something we've handled very well. When we play with a lot of energy, we come out very fast."
That was certainly the case against Georgia as South Carolina (25-4) built a 20-point lead midway through the second quarter. Georgia shot less than 20 percent, falling behind 42-16 at halftime.
The Gamecocks will face No. 20 Kentucky for the second time in less than a week, in the semifinals on Saturday. The Wildcats topped Alabama 65-55.
It was the second time in the past three games that Coates sat out with a sprained right ankle. South Carolina won 80-64 at always difficult Texas A&M without her on Feb. 23, then blew out the Bulldogs.
"I think they're just a resilient group," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "Whatever's throw their way, they handle it all season long. It's the mark of a really good team that's able to take advantage of those adverse moments."
Allisha Gray had 17 points and sophomore Doniyah Cliney had a career-high 11 for the Gamecocks. Coates' replacement in the starting lineup, 6-2 freshman Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, had five points and a career-best 10 rebounds.
Pachis Roberts led Georgia (16-15) with 15 points on 4-of-17 shooting.
Roberts said the Gamecocks sped up the pace and took the Bulldogs out of their rhythm. "It was hard to get back from that," she said.
Coates showed up on a scooter with her ankle elevated and sat behind the bench for the final quarter. South Carolina fans cheered and shouted her name and Coates waved back. Staley said she hoped to have Coates back in the lineup for the semifinal.
THE BIG PICTURE
Georgia: The Bulldogs were sunk by poor shooting and South Carolina's swarming defense. Georgia was just 6 of 31 from the field in the opening two quarters. Roberts, an all-SEC second-team selection, had just five points at halftime. Pachis hit her first shot from 3-point range, then went cold and didn't make another basket the rest of the half.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks played without double-double machine Coates for a second time in three games and wasn't fazed. Coates, a 6-foot-4 senior, has averaged 13.4 points and tops the SEC in rebounding at 11.1 boards per game. Still, South Carolina rushed out to a 20-point lead midway through the second quarter as Wilson and Herbert-Harrigan, controlled the boards. Wilson and Herbert-Harrigan combined for seven of the Gamecocks 15 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes.
Both injured South Carolina star Alaina Coates and Georgia coach Joni Taylor got around the arena on scooters. Coates used one to keep her injured ankle off the floor. Taylor needed it after tearing her Achilles' tendon in practice two months ago.
Taylor said she won't spend much time worrying one way or another about whether her Bulldogs belong in the NCAA Tournament. Georgia, the No. 8 seed, reached the quarterfinals after a victory over Auburn. "After yesterday, you feel pretty good," Taylor said.
Georgia: Awaits potential postseason bid.
South Carolina: Plays No. 20 Kentucky in the semifinals on Saturday.