It was overlooked because of how many games South Carolina was winning, and some of the margins USC won by. Defense does win championships, but when offensive numbers light scoreboard bulbs and earn individual honors, it becomes a backstory.
Throughout the Gamecocks’ five consecutive NCAA Tournament seasons, their defense was marvelous. While it has decreased each year since the first trip in 2012, USC’s scoring D was always in the country’s Top 25, three times in the Top 10 and once at No. 12. It was tabbed 25th last year, a drop of 13 spots from the year before, but considering USC only lost two of 35 games, it wasn’t a weakness.
The No. 6 Gamecocks are facing their first hurdle of this season after losing at Duke last Sunday. Their defense isn’t a “weakness” at present, but it’s definitely an issue.
“I’ve been preaching all season long that our defense is a work in progress,” Dawn Staley said Tuesday at a meeting of the Columbia Tip-Off Club. “I think the type of team we have this particular year, they love offense. They think they can beat everybody with offense. And when you have a night like we had on Sunday night, you got to be able to get some stops and coordinate the defense.”
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USC left Cameron Indoor Stadium with a loss that dropped it out of the AP’s top five for the first time in three seasons, and a scoring defense that ranks 57th in the country. That’s the lowest mark since 2010-11, the season before the tournament streak began.
As Staley said, she knew she was going to have some problems defensively this year. While she returned SEC Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson, she lost three players who had started the majority of the past three years.
Tiffany Mitchell, Asia Dozier and Khadijah Sessions were so vital to every facet of the Gamecocks’ system that despite replacing them with proven talent (Bianca Cuevas-Moore, Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray), there was going to be a dropoff. Through six games, USC was allowing a lot of points, but could always score enough to overcome it.
That ended Sunday. A substitution midway through the first quarter that Staley blamed herself for opened the door to Duke erasing an 11-point deficit and leading 36-29 at halftime. The Gamecocks never got out of that hole.
It started well, too, the three guards switching on and off Duke’s Rebecca Greenwell and Lexie Brown, the two focal points of the Blue Devils’ offense. Neither could get a clean look, but that first sub led to USC turnovers, transition points and a startlingly quick settling in.
The Gamecocks were constantly lost on the switches and Greenwell and Brown had wide-open shots. Wilson and Alaina Coates seemed hesitant to challenge the Devils when they came into the lane. With no answers on defense, USC had to begin shooting from the outside, and couldn’t make nearly enough jumpers to turn the game.
Staley said it afterward – she had stressed the problems to her players through the first six games, but it’s hard for the message to really get through when you’re winning. In that sense, perhaps it’s fortunate the Gamecocks lost just before a lengthy break – it’s that much more time to let the loss fester, and make the team concentrate on what needs to be done.
USC will host Minnesota on Sunday, then faces surprisingly undefeated Clemson. Opponent prep is important but USC working on itself is paramount.
“It’s a great opportunity to show them on film, it’s a great opportunity to practice, because it’s hard,” Staley said. “Like I told our players, it’s hard to teach from winning. Sometimes you got to learn a hard lesson by losing.”
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