It’s three games into the season and the competition has been against low to mid-majors, but Dawn Staley likes the way her South Carolina team has started. For the second consecutive season, USC has won its first three games.
The Gamecocks have scored at least 77 points in each game and have not allowed more than 58 after they easily dispatched Savannah State 78-47 Thursday night at Colonial Life Arena.
All nine Gamecocks who played had scored by the half as USC built a 20-point lead. Being able to rotate so many players has been important for Staley. The five newcomers have played substantial minutes in the first three games, and it’s the second consecutive home game during which the youngsters increased the lead while playing the majority of the second half.
“They have to play,” Staley said. “We’re trying to get them more minutes every time out. At some point, they’re going to be in games in which they need to play for us. They’re not where they need to be, but they aren’t where they were a month ago. Slowly but surely, they’re getting better.”
While defense has been a staple for Staley’s first four teams, this team might be a little better offensively.
In 128 career games coaching at South Carolina, Staley’s teams have reached the 70-point plateau 25 times, with three of those coming this season. They are 22-3 in those games.
Still, Staley harped on defensive lapses the Gamecocks had against the Tigers.
“I do think they have the potential to be better,” Staley said. “We’ve put points on the board and I don’t think our teams have done that in the past. But at the same time, I think we could have held them to a lot less points.”
South Carolina (3-0) shot 46.3 percent and had four players in double figures, led by Aleighsa Welch. The sophomore recorded her first career double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Freshman Asia Dozier, the former Spring Valley standout, had 11 points, and Ieasia Walker and Tiffany Mitchell chipped in 10 apiece.
Welch, one of the leaders returning from last year, thinks this team has room to grow.
“It’s really early in the season and it’s kind of hard to tell since we’re trying to figure everything out,” Welch said. “I don’t do the compare and contrast from this year’s team to last year’s team. There are a lot of different areas we have to get better at. Things are only going to get tougher.”
The Gamecocks had nearly as many offensive rebounds (25) as the Tigers had total rebounds (26).
The defense set the tone early against Savannah State (1-1). The Gamecocks held the Tigers without a field goal for the opening 8:25. By the time they allowed the first basket, the Gamecocks held a 16-2 advantage. Savannah State was 7-of-24 from the field in the first half and missed its first 11 shots.
“That was a pretty good stretch where our team bought into what the game plan was,” Staley said. “For us, the magic trick is to do it for forty minutes. I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Even with all the good news, there was a cloud over the victory. Freshman Tiffany Davis went down late in the second half with what Staley called a right knee sprain. USC ended the game with eight healthy players.
The Gamecocks return to action Sunday afternoon with a 3 p.m. tip against rival Clemson.
Note: Sophomore Elem Ibiam missed her second consecutive game for precautionary reasons after having an injured head in practice. Her availability for Sunday’s game against Clemson will be determined.