COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It was a shaky win for Auburn (No. 8 ESPN/USA Today, No. 9 AP), but coach Nell Fortner will gladly take it.
The Tigers (16-0, 1-0 Southeastern) turned the ball over 21 times and could never quite put South Carolina away in an 80-76 win Thursday night. Still, Fortner figures any SEC win is a good one for a team trying to climb back from several years in the bottom half of the conference.
"It's not easy getting wins in this league and it's definitely not easy getting them on the road," said Fortner, whose team hadn't won an SEC opener since 2001.
With all five starters back from a team that made the NCAA tournament last season, Fortner's rebuilding project is finally paying off. The Tigers were off to their best start in 20 years and a game against a South Carolina team expected to be at the bottom of the SEC seemed like a good time to show how far they had come.
But the Gamecocks (8-6, 0-1) led by two at half, and Auburn had to shoot 19-of-31 in the second half and make key free throws down the stretch to pull it out.
"The second half, we came out and attacked them more on the defense end. We came out and we took advantage of the defense. They were playing tight," said DeWanna Bonner, who led all scorers with 29 points.
The Tigers led 74-67 with 38.2 seconds to go, but a three-point play by South Carolina's Brionna Dickerson and a steal and bucket by Samone Kennedy cut the lead to 76-74.
Auburn's Alli Smalley made two free throws with 12.7 seconds and Bonner added two more with 3.1 seconds to go to seal the win.
Whitney Boddie tied a career-high with 21 points for the Tigers, as the four returning seniors scored 62 of their 80 points.
"These kids have been starters since day one when they came to Auburn. They've been in tough games like this before and they know how to win," Fortner said.
Auburn is one of four undefeated teams left in the country, joining North Carolina, Connecticut and Kansas State. And Tennessee (No. 11 ESPN/USA Today, No. 7 AP) is the only SEC team ranked higher.
South Carolina's first-year coach Dawn Staley said she could take away some positive things from this game too. It was the Gamecocks' third game against a top 10 team this season, and she said they showed marked improvement after losing by 29 to No. 1 Connecticut and 31 to Stanford (No. 7 ESPN/USA Today, No. 11 AP).
After the game, she gathered her players at midcourt.
"I told them we're here. This is the SEC," Staley said. "If you play as well as you played against this basketball team, we'll win a lot of basketball games.
Dickerson led South Carolina with 19 points, while Lakeisha Sutton and Demetress Adams each added 17. Adams played just 20 minutes because of foul trouble, and the Gamecocks only used seven players.
Staley came to the Gamecocks to try and build an SEC power after leading Temple to six NCAA tournaments in eight seasons. The Gamecocks have made the tournament just eight times and just twice in the past 17 seasons.
"I think you'll find that each and every game, we'll get better," Staley said. "Each and every game we will put ourselves in a position to win. That's all you want at this point."