It wasn’t pretty, but the end result typifies the start of the season for the South Carolina women’s basketball team.
All nine Gamecocks scored at least four points as USC pulled away for a 66-44 victory against Western Carolina at Colonial Life Arena on Saturday.
The win closes out the non-conference portion of the schedule for No. 19 South Carolina (12-1). It’s the best start since the 2001 team recorded the same record route to an NCAA tournament Elite Eight appearance.
Coach Dawn Staley was not ready to talk about those types of things, but she likes the makeup of this team.
“Things are going to get harder,” Staley said. “We’re probably not going to play as well as we’ve played the first 13 games of the season because of the rigors of playing in the SEC. It’s a tough league and unforgiving. I hope we’ve done enough to prepare them to just hold serve.”
The Gamecocks will open SEC play at home against No. 13 Tennessee on Thursday night at 9. Both the players and Staley understand things will be different once SEC play begins.
“Everything is going to get a lot tougher,” senior guard Ieasia Walker said. “It’s going to be really physical. Teams are going to be bigger. Coach Staley just told us after the game she is going to turn it up a notch. We have to focus a lot more in everything that we do. Everything we do has to be turned up a notch.”
Much like they have all season, USC started sluggish against the Catamounts. They shot 13-for-31 (41.9 percent) in the first half and were even worse from the free throw line, where they were 1-for-7 in the first half and 4-for-14 in the game.
But defense set the tone by forcing 14 first-half turnovers to build a double-digit lead that was consistent from about the 11-minute mark of the half. With that relentless attack on the defensive end, it was the 10th time this season USC held an opponent to less than 50 points.
Walker, who became the 13th player in school history to record 200 steals after recording five against Western Carolina, said the defense always tried to set the tone early.
“We haven’t been as efficient (offensively) as we like and our defense is something we can control,” Walker said. “We can’t rely on it though. We have to start knocking down shots as well. Defense is effort, and that is the mentality you have to have.”
Tiffany Mitchell, the only player in double figures with 12 points, provided a spark with eight early points, and Elem Ibiam came on at the end of the half to add eight points.
But it was the defense that held the Catamounts (3-8) to 39 percent shooting and 20 turnovers that was the catalyst.
“Our Achilles heel is scoring the basketball,” Staley said, “We have stretches where we don’t score and we put too much pressure on our defense and you really can’t do that in SEC play. It’s hard to hold people to 50 points but we’ve done it and we will continue to do it. We just have to find a way to score 51.”
South Carolina extended the lead early in the second half behind Aleighsa Welch and Ashley Bruner. The two post players combined for two points in the first half but came out and scored 10 during an 18-9 spurt to begin the second half.
Welch had two three-point plays and Bruner scored two inside baskets after being held scoreless in the first half. The lead grew to as many as 28 points in the second half until South Carolina settled for their tenth double-digit win of the season.
Staley was able to give everyone at least 17 minutes and she feels that is a plus going into conference play.
“Our bench played a lot more in the first half and that was a little bit different,” Staley said. “We were trying to give all our players some experience leading up into SEC play.”