Dawn Staley knew that this season, more than any since she’s been at South Carolina, was different. For the first time, she had the height and the depth to play big.
Forwards Aleighsa Welch, Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates combined for 55 points as the No. 22 Gamecocks walloped North Greenville 96-35 on Friday, leading an inside attack that had the Crusaders (tallest player: 6-foot) gasping. Taking what was given from a distinct height advantage, USC scored its first 32 points in the lane and ended with 78 in the paint.
“We’ve been working extremely hard on getting the ball inside,” Staley said. “Elle’s been doing great in practice, just being able to create some space for her and take high-percentage shots, and Alaina’s been doing the same. We wanted to make sure that we made a conscious effort to get the ball inside.”
With her first five teams dependent on guard play, and many of the losses of the past two years attributable to a lack of height, Staley has the players to switch the Gamecocks’ look this year. Welch is able to play inside and out, and Ibiam is trying to turn two stellar postseasons into a consistent regular season.
Guards Khadijah Sessions and Asia Dozier kept finding the cutting Welch for easy baskets. Coates checked in at the first horn and quickly scored four points, along with an assist, to set up a sizzling debut.
Foul trouble to Ibiam and Welch getting her knee rolled up on (she was fine, but she sat down to avoid any other potential trouble) gave Coates extended minutes, and the freshman delivered. She finished 9-of-13 with 20 points, six rebounds and five blocks.
“I think I played pretty well for coming off the bench,” Coates said. “For my debut game, 20 points was actually much higher than I expected.”
With Welch scoring 15 with nine boards and seven assists, and Ibiam adding 20 points and five rebounds, USC barely needed contributions from its others. The Gamecocks got them anyway, with Tiffany Mitchell scoring 19, Sessions scoring 10 and Dozier showing off a new side of her game, being aggressive to the basket and dishing six assists.
Everybody played except for Tiffany Davis, who sat out with a hamstring injury. USC shot 60 percent from the field, forced more turnovers (29) than North Greenville had rebounds (26) and had 27 assists on its 42 field goals.
All wasn’t perfect. Staley pointed out that USC should have had a much higher field-goal percentage. Ibiam missed a point-blank shot on the game’s first possession and USC had at least 10 other misses right beside the basket.
“With the lack of experience, we have to know where our shots are coming from,” Staley said. “I thought we missed a ton of layups. And we missed a ton of free throws in the first half. Probably a little bit of jitters, but certainly, jitters or not, you should be able to make a layup, especially some of them uncontested.”
USC opens the regular season at 7 p.m. on Nov. 8 against Charleston Southern. Friday was a chance to get a feel for how Staley wants her team to play this year.
“I think that as far as the play, individual play, I think we did well,” Dozier said. “I think we were lacking efficiency where we needed to in certain areas. A lot of times, Coach has talked to us in the huddle about not playing to the level of our competition, and this not being anything close to what we’re going to see later on.”