Dawn Staley was hoping to send a message when she left Charenee Stephens at home during Thursday’s trip to Clemson. Staley suspended the sophomore forward for one game for a violation of team rules, and she feels like she got the response she was looking for.
Stephens came off the bench to score a career-high 17 points and added 11 rebounds, one shy of tying her career high, as she led the Gamecocks to a 63-56 victory against Penn State in the home opener at Colonial Life Arena.
“Charenee is a hard worker,” Staley said. “She does what she does. I think she was the difference maker tonight and hopefully she can continue to be in the lineup for us.”
Penn State coach Coquese Washington felt that whatever Staley was trying to get across worked. Stephens had four points and three rebounds in the first half but came on to record the first double-double of the season and second of her career. She was a point shy of having a double-double in the season opener at Charlotte.
“When kids are disciplined and have to miss a game, they come back with renewed focus, renewed fire, renewed energy,” Washington said. “Whatever message coach Staley was trying to send to her, she played her tail off.”
Stephens wants to put the mistake of the past week behind her and focus on how to make this team better. She combined with freshman Kelsey Bone for 21 points and 14 rebounds in the second half alone. They also seemed to feed off each other with Bone having eight points and six rebounds in the final half.
“I just prepared myself for this game,” Stephens said. “I’m not looking back on what happened last week, just really focusing on things that are going on right now and what is going to happen in the future. This was a gut-check and we really had to buckle down.”
The Gamecocks (2-1) played two overtime games to open the season, and after pulling ahead by 13 points at the half, they needed the efforts of Stephens and Bone to hold off the Lady Lions down the stretch.
Penn State (3-1) erased the first-half deficit with a 14-1 run to open the second half. From that point, the score was tied three times, and the lead changed hands twice with South Carolina taking the lead for good, 46-43, on a 3-pointer from Valerie Nainima with 7:17 to go. Nainima hit all four of the Gamecocks 3-pointers and was the leading scorer with 18 points.
But it was Bone and Stephens that paid dividends late. Four Penn State players fouled out, and the two post players combined for eight points and six rebounds in the final four minutes to keep the Lions at bay. The lead was never larger than nine points after USC claimed the advantage, and the Lady Lions only had one possession down the stretch in which they could have tied.
With such a young team, Staley was glad to see how her team responded after the disappointing loss at Clemson.
“We are going to have to grind them out,” Staley said. “We are a very young basketball team, and I think sometimes people forget about that because the talent level has been raised. But they are still just freshmen and sophomores.”