COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley wants her players focused on one thing — and it's not Arkansas coach Tom Collen's belief the Gamecocks are tops in the Southeastern Conference and a legitimate Final Four contender.
"She's got a Final Four-type team and they're probably only going to get better," said Collen after No. 6 South Carolina's sixth-straight victory, 67-49 over Arkansas.
The first-place Gamecocks (22-2, 10-1 Southeastern Conference) are the SEC's lone one-loss team.
Staley's grateful for her colleague's praise. She's got her hands full, though, keeping her team on the right track and playing the next game at No. 16 LSU on Feb. 16 with a high level of energy.
"The way you look at is if we continue to do what we've done all season long, that stuff will take care of itself," Staley said. "We're going to concentrate on getting another win on the road at LSU. Whatever's after that is after that."
Aleighsa Welch had 16 points and a career-best five blocks to lead the Gamecocks.
Arkansas (16-8, 3-8) did its best to pack in the middle and disrupt South Carolina's game plan of feeding the 6-foot Welch and 6-4 forwards Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates underneath. But Ibiam and Coates both added 10 points each while the trio of low-post players combined for 21 rebounds.
Tiffany Mitchell, who had 15 points for South Carolina, said the team looks first to the post before taking outside shots. "That's where we go. That's our bread and butter right now," she said.
South Carolina also turned up its defense against the Razorbacks, holding them to under 30 percent shooting for a second time this season. Arkansas leading scorer Jessica Jackson was held to half her 16.6 point-a-game average with eight points on 1-of-12 shooting.
Calli Berna and Keira Peak led the Razorbacks with nine points each.
The Gamecocks were ahead by double digits midway through the opening period and led 33-18 at the break. Arkansas cut that down to 37-27 on Berna's 3-pointer with 15:26 left. South Carolina steadily built that back to 53-34 on Coates' three-point play with 8:48 remaining.
South Carolina has steadily risen in the SEC this season because of its power in the paint. Ibiam leads the conference in blocks — she set the school's single-season mark in last Thursday night's win at Mississippi State — while Coates is third in league blocks.
And it was clear from the start, the Razorbacks wanted to pack things in down low and prevent the quick lay-ins and close in buckets that have the Gamecocks on top in SEC field-goal percentage.
Arkansas' plan worked for a while. It forced South Carolina into 10 first-half turnovers — the Gamecocks had 14, 11 and 11 in each of their past three games — and made the team look for other ways to score.
Mitchell, the Gamecocks' top scorer, took full advantage with a 3-pointer and a three-point play early on as they moved on top 15-6. Eventually, things opened up for South Carolina's post players.
Ibiam was 4 for 6 for eight points and had two of the Gamecocks' six first-half blocks. Welch, the SEC's leader in field goal percentage, was 3-of-5 shooting for seven points and three blocks.
While the Gamecocks may have had trouble scoring, so did Arkansas — again.
The Razorbacks finished the half with six field goals, four by Peak, and their second-lowest points output in a half. The fewest came on Jan. 2 when the Gamecocks held Arkansas to 16 points in the opening half of a 55-51 victory in Fayetteville.
For the first 17 minutes of the half, Arkansas was 4 of 26 on field goals. Peak made them all with the rest of her team 0 of 19.
Standout freshman forward Jessica Jackson was 1 of 8 from the field. The Razorbacks made 6-of-30 shots (20 percent) at the break.
It was the second time this season Arkansas shot less than 30 percent in losing to South Carolina.
"I just don't think there are a lot of teams in the country that have that low-post presence like they do," Collen said.
The game was part of "Play4Kay" series to raise breast cancer awareness. Both teams wore pink sneakers, the officials used pink whistles and coaching staffs wore "Play4Kay" shirts or sported pink ribbons.
During warmups, South Carolina's shirts also had "Nikki" in honor of assistant Nikki McCray who was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this season.