South Carolina knew it would be tough trying to score on a team that was taller than it was, and that it would be twice as hard trying to keep it from scoring. A lot of times, the game is decided by a simple equation – whoever has the tallest players wins the game.
Duke was taller.
But Duke was the loser.
The No.1 Gamecocks held the then-No. 9 Blue Devils to one double-figure scorer and 31.6 percent shooting in a 51-50 win on Sunday. USC blocked five shots but deflected several more and kept the Blue Devils from getting too far into the paint with a bend-but-don’t-break mentality.
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“We just knew we had to play through it. It was a physical game,” USC forward Aleighsa Welch said. “You’re dealing with a taller team than us, which, that doesn’t really happen often.”
Duke’s front line of 6-foot-5 Azura Stevens and 6-3 Elizabeth Williams scored 10 points on a combined 4-of-16 shooting. They were averaging 26.2. Duke won the rebounding total 44-36, but USC grabbed 24 defensive rebounds to keep the Blue Devils’ second chances to a minimum.
How do they do it? The Gamecocks only recently got multiple big players with 6-4 Alaina Coates joining last year and two more signing on this year. Before then, they learned to be tougher – standing their ground, having guards concentrate on swiping the ball when it’s brought to opponents’ knees and refusing to submit to taller players.
“Rebounding isn’t a skill. I keep telling our players that,” coach Dawn Staley said. “It’s a decision – you’re either going to do it or you’re not going to do it.”
USC’s scoring defense has been one of the country’s best over the past four years, ranking fourth, fifth and eighth. This year, it checks in at third.
Against Duke, USC’s offense struggled as the Blue Devils blocked eight shots, stole eight balls and hampered Coates and Elem Ibiam. Yet the Gamecocks won the paint battle 32-24. Had they gotten whistles when they began going into the lane and drawing contact, the game may not have had to come down to a last-second shot.
USC was fine when it did. Defensive presence – specifically, a steal by substitute Olivia Gaines in the final 12 seconds to set up the winning possession – again raised its head.
“Our identity is kind of predicated on how our opponents are playing,” Staley said. “We can play a lot of different ways.”
The Gamecocks won’t face many teams as tall as the Blue Devils and feel Sunday’s game will help in March. Who knows? With one NCAA tournament regional set for Greensboro, N.C., the two teams might meet again.