South Carolina needed to grow up before its first game without injured star A’ja Wilson.
It still needs to.
The No. 5 Gamecocks survived Georgia 66-63 Thursday, Allisha Gray rebounding a missed free throw that would have tied the game with 5.4 seconds to go. She made the ensuing free throws and USC got its hands in the face of Stephanie Paul, who beat Vanderbilt the last time she attempted a buzzer-beater but left a 3-pointer short on Thursday.
They refused to feel too bad about the win but they all knew. Yes, they expected to not look the same without the defending SEC Player of the Year on the court.
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No, they did not expect to look so unprepared and unwilling to fight off a Lady Bulldogs team that had as little players as they did, and not nearly the accolades.
“I think it was just people being in places that were foreign to them,” coach Dawn Staley said. “They forced us in situations where we haven’t been in.”
Bianca Cuevas-Moore scored a career-high 25 points, 17 in the second half. She scored 10 straight at one point, assisting on another two.
“I didn’t really think I had to take over, but I felt like I was hitting shots as soon as I came into the game,” she shrugged.
She didn’t get much help. The Gamecocks (14-1, 4-0 SEC) seemed befuddled about what they were supposed to do offensively. They tried to get the ball to center Alaina Coates, but Georgia was doubling and tripling her in the post and she was in foul trouble all night. They tried to get a boost from streaky shooter Kaela Davis, who was at the wrong end of the streak with a frosty 1-of-10 performance from the floor.
First-time starter Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who has been rock-solid off the bench this year, was scoreless with two rebounds and three turnovers. Gray scored 14 and Ty Harris had 11, including the biggest of the game when she splashed a 3-pointer for the lead immediately after Georgia jumped ahead 55-53 with 4:35 to play.
But the defense again and again allowed lob passes into the post, where Pachis Roberts scored 17 points. USC had a whopping 13 steals and forced 18 turnovers, and Georgia leading scorer Caliya Robinson was scoreless until the middle of the third quarter. Yet the Lady Bulldogs (10-7, 2-2) were in the game until the buzzer.
There were excuses. Davis, besides not feeling her shot, twice left the court for various ailments. Coates is fighting a stomach bug. No Wilson.
USC didn’t use any of them. The Gamecocks rightly credited Cuevas-Moore, who has fought her own battles with inconsistency, for playing a marvelous game and proving she can rally the team when she has to.
And they realized they have a lot to work on to keep this run going.
“Tonight it was B,” Gray said, answering a question to who leads USC on the floor without Wilson. “B was on fire.”
NOTE: Wilson will have her cast removed Friday. They’ll see how she feels after that leading to Sunday’s game at LSU. “I know she does not want to miss another game,” Staley said.
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