South Carolina’s closest margin of victory was 15 points. The Gamecocks are ranked 10th in the country, have yet to lose a game and are readying for a Top-15 matchup with North Carolina next week.
But it can be better.
The execution during the last game at Charlotte proved that. Once again, USC left so many points at the rim that the Gamecocks can’t feel like they’re going to keep blowing out opponents all season.
“I think they challenged us in a way that will give us a visual for our players,” coach Dawn Staley said after USC’s 76-61 win at Charlotte. “Just to say it is different than seeing it and breaking it down.”
The 49ers weren’t taller than the Gamecocks, but their length and athleticism made it difficult for USC to get its inside game going. Built to throw the ball inside to Elem Ibiam, or have Aleighsa Welch slash to the rim, USC had to adjust when Welch was whistled for two quick fouls and went to the bench.
The ball got to Ibiam, but she had a hard time putting it in the basket. Whether it was getting deflected on the way up or being thrown with no touch, the Gamecocks were seeing attempt after attempt strike the glass and usually carom into the arms of a 49er. Even Khadijah Sessions joined in, taking off on a fast break only to see her layup glance high off the backboard and away.
USC missed six straight shots from two feet or less as Charlotte trimmed a six-point deficit to one at the half. The Gamecocks weren’t that concerned — they knew that they’d get Welch back in the second half — but the issue of the past three seasons was beginning to raise its head.
The Gamecocks have had a lot of missed layups and missed high-percentage shots despite their success of the past three years. In the games they’ve lost, those numbers usually are haunting.
This season, Ibiam is trying to be consistent, and freshman Alaina Coates is finding out that she’s not the tallest kid on the court anymore. It’s easy to hide when winning by 20 points; but in a game such as in Charlotte, it showed what USC may face down the road.
Welch returned and began driving, making her shots, putting the team on her back and carrying them to a win. She scored 18 points in the second half and upped her season field-goal percentage to 72.3, which leads the country.
“Once I saw one go in, I finally got a lot of confidence,” Welch said. “I never was able to get comfortable. I got a lot more aggressive and a lot more vocal with trying to get the ball, and trying to push the tempo a little bit, play the game more at our speed.”
The Gamecocks get that every night. If Ibiam and Coates contribute their usual numbers (despite the issues, each averages double figures), there won’t be a big concern.
If another game like Charlotte rises — and the talent only gets better from here — there may be.