South Carolina’s used to playing double-team, packed-in zones. When the No. 6 Gamecocks feature the most intimidating frontcourt in the league, opponents will naturally try to surround Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson and deny them the ball.
Missouri will do that with a little extra.
“We’re expecting very, very physical play,” coach Dawn Staley said before USC (22-3, 12-1 SEC) headed to the other Columbia seeking a win to stay on top of the chase for the regular-season championship. “They do what they need to do to get wins, and that’s why they’ve been pretty successful.”
The fifth-place Tigers have won two straight, seven of nine and stand a game out of third and a double-bye in the SEC tournament. Missouri split a series with Kentucky and beat Texas A&M, so if the Tigers can win Sunday and get some help, they can get into a tie for fourth and have an easier path to the tournament championship.
They’ve been playing well, leaning on star sophomore Sophie Cunningham for points and the entire team playing nasty defense. Some label it physical, some say intense, some say diamond-beaked.
Some, such as Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy, say it’s dirty.
Williams-Flournoy was overheard muttering “dirty, dirty team” while leaving her post-game press conference following a 68-53 loss to Mizzou in late January. Missouri coach Robin Pingeton was surprised, saying she wouldn’t apologize for her team playing hard, gritty defense, but didn’t feel it was dirty.
The Gamecocks have seen their share of tough defenses this year and think Missouri’s ranks with them. Wilson and Coates were bulling through contact all night against Connecticut and expect to have to do the same against the Tigers.
Mizzou’s physicality was on display last year against USC, but the Gamecocks put Cunningham on the bench with two early fouls and routed the Tigers 83-58. Still, USC remembers how the Tigers play.
“They’re really physical. Really, incredibly physical,” Wilson said. “They’re hard-nosed people. They’re going to go after you.”
Staley said it will be a different style of defense that will force USC’s guards to make outside shots, a concern throughout the season. Mentioning last year’s loss in the Sweet 16 didn’t comfort anybody.
“It will probably be Syracuse’s zone on another level, because I think they have five sets of feet in the paint, forcing us to take outside shots,” Staley said. “With a team like this, you got to make some.”
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NO. 6 SOUTH CAROLINA (22-3, 12-1) at MISSOURI (18-9, 8-5)
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Mizzou Arena, Columbia, Mo.
Radio: 107.5 FM
South Carolina’s probable starters: G Ty Harris 5-10 Fr. (5.2 ppg, 1.7 rpg); G Allisha Gray 6-0 Jr. (12.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg); G Kaela Davis 6-2 Jr. (11.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg); F A’ja Wilson 6-5 Jr. (16.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg); C Alaina Coates 6-4 Sr. (13.8 ppg, 11.5 rpg)
Missouri’s probable starters: G Lianna Doty 5-7 Sr.; G Sophie Cunningham 6-1 So.; G Sierra Michaelis 5-10 Sr.; G Lindsey Cunningham 6-0 Sr.; F Cierra Porter 6-4 So.
Next game: South Carolina tips off at Texas A&M at 9 p.m. on Thursday.