South Carolina’s players talked all month about how their lofty No. 2 preseason ranking would bring every opponent’s best game.
It was proven in their first test.
Slapped in the mouth by a physical Southern Cal team and trailing 53-52 with less than seven minutes to play on Saturday, the Gamecocks scored the next 14 points on their way to a 70-61 win. Wake-up call, teaching point, whatever it was labeled – the Gamecocks (1-0) never got their offense flowing, had their two best players hobbled by foul trouble and turnovers and their advantage in talent was nearly negated by the aggressive Trojans.
They didn’t lose, doing just enough when Southern Cal (0-1) took its only lead of the second half. But it got that close – not that coach Dawn Staley minded.
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“For us, we’re not playing for November. We’re playing for March and April,” Staley said. “So, the things that we’re doing out there, we’re just preparing our team for different situations. We’re not taking anybody lightly, but we’re also in the position of learning and teaching our young players how to play at this level.”
The plan was why Staley didn’t panic when McKenzie Calvert sank a layup to take a Southern Cal lead with 6:56 to go. The Gamecocks immediately leaned on their most experienced five and it just as immediately paid off.
Khadijah Sessions drained a 3-pointer to start the run and Tiffany Mitchell found Alaina Coates inside for two. Mitchell scored on a layup, Tina Roy swished a 3 and Aleighsa Welch closed the run with two buckets.
“Fortunately for us, we have some players who have been in situations like this,” Staley said. “If we need them, we’ll call their numbers, and they came through for us.”
“We’re not going to blow a team out in 20 minutes,” said Mitchell, the preseason SEC Player of the Year. “We need to be prepared for that. Southern Cal put up a great fight, and we just overcame it.”
This was a game that looked comfortable on paper. The Trojans surprised the nation by winning the Pac-12 tournament last year, but were without their top two scorers this season.
USC’s preferred approach to getting the ball inside was derailed early, the Trojans’ length disrupting the Gamecocks’ entries and forcing cross-court passes. Staley started Mitchell at point guard with a big lineup around her – 6-foot-5 A’ja Wilson played two-guard with posts Coates, Welch and Elem Ibiam. They knew what they wanted to do, but the Trojans denied it from the tip.
Mitchell wound up with 18 points, but six turnovers. The Gamecocks had 19 as a team. They had nine steals, 10 blocked shots and 31 defensive rebounds, but until the 14-0 run, looked nothing like the ruthless, formidable bunch in the preseason predictions.
“We knew they were going to be pretty physical,” Mitchell said. “We just had a lot of unforced turnovers. Not exactly what they did to us. We were kind of playing too fast.”
Rather than be concerned, Staley saw many benefits. The defense played well in the first half before sagging inside in the second (Welch had four fouls and sat much of that time). The inside game picked up, Coates scoring on four consecutive possessions in the first half to build a halftime cushion. Roy sparkled at the point in the second half and stroked three big 3-pointers. The Gamecocks shot 46 percent despite the early troubles.
And they won. When they got behind, they quit any semblance of experimental, this-will-come-in-handy-later ball and won the game.
“I said throughout this game, it’s a great game for us,” Staley said. “I hope that, mainly our young players understand, when you take this leap to the next level, it’s very important that you play each possession, that you pay attention to details, that you are aware of what’s going on out there. It will take them some time to make that adjustment.”
SOUTHERN CAL (0-1) | Adams 3-10 0-1 6, Jaco 1-6 0-0 3, Horn 4-9 2-2 11, Vaioletama 3-6 2-2 9, Barrett 1-7 5-8 7, Calvert 2-9 7-7 11, Edelman 5-5 0-0 10, Alofaituli 0-2 0-0 0, Simon 2-4 0-0 4, Okonkwo 0-5 0-0 0. Totals 21-63 16-20 61.
SOUTH CAROLINA (1-0) | Wilson 2-7 0-2 4, Welch 4-5 2-4 10, Mitchell 4-10 10-12 18, Ibiam 2-3 1-2 5, Coates 6-8 6-6 18, Cuevas 0-3 0-1 0, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0, Sessions 2-5 0-0 6, Roy 3-6 0-0 9, Dozier 0-3 0-0 0, White 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-50 19-27 70.
Halftime: South Carolina 27-24. 3-Point Goals: Southern Cal 3-10 (Horn 1-1, Vaioletama 1-1, Jaco 1-3, Okonkwo 0-1, Calvert 0-2, Adams 0-2), South Carolina 5-15 (Roy 3-5, Sessions 2-3, Cuevas 0-2, Dozier 0-2, Mitchell 0-3). Fouled Out: Welch. Rebounds: Southern Cal 34 (Simon 6), South Carolina 43 (Coates 13). Assists: Southern Cal 9 (Simon 3), South Carolina 15 (Roy 6). Total Fouls: Southern Cal 23, South Carolina 18. Attendance: 10,057.