A’ja Wilson had to think about it.
Not thinking too much and relying on the instinct and game that made her the country’s No. 1 prospect won the game and kept top-ranked South Carolina perfect.
Wilson put back Tiffany Mitchell’s miss with 1.8 seconds to play on Sunday, spurring the Gamecocks to a 51-50 win over No. 9 Duke. Its offense in shackles and trailing 50-46 with 42 seconds to go, USC stormed back with one plucky defensive play and two huge buckets.
“We drew up a plan, we kind of went away from it because it wasn’t there,” Wilson said. “The thing that we emphasize the most is rebounding. So I knew that whatever shot went up, I got to go in and crash the boards. So I went in, she missed it and it just kind of fell in my hands and I put it up there.”
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The shot nestled through, the stunned Blue Devils couldn’t call timeout to set up a play and a last-second desperation heave was well off the mark. The joyful Gamecocks, 8-0 and headed for a third straight week at No. 1 in the AP Top 25, congregated with the sizable fan contingent that made the trip and celebrated their second comeback win over a ranked team in the last four games.
“We needed it,” senior forward Aleighsa Welch said. “Those were two games where we were tested, all the way down.
“We never had one time where we didn’t believe we were going to win this game.”
USC was held in check by Duke’s massive height, the Blue Devils’ zone defense prohibiting interior game and the Gamecocks unable to hit from outside. But, Duke was nearly as frigid as USC – in the first half, each team shot under 22 percent and Duke took a 21-17 lead into the break.
The Gamecocks built a five-point lead with just under 13 minutes to play but the Devils (5-3) had woken. They made nine of their next 12 field-goal attempts, including the only five points of the game from Elizabeth Williams, who was fighting an ankle injury that had kept her out of the past two games.
Welch missed an inside shot and Asia Dozier had a wide-open look from the 3-point line bounce out, forcing USC to pack the lane and try to get the ball back. As Rebecca Greenwell drove and was fouled, the Gamecocks knew they’d just put the Devils’ best free-throw shooter on the line for two shots in a two-point game. With 42 seconds to play, Greenwell swished both for a four-point lead.
The Gamecocks talked about the play they wanted to run and then re-discussed it after Dozier was trapped near mid-court. With 20 seconds showing, Mitchell coolly side-stepped a lunging defender to set her feet and launch a 3-pointer; it hit and USC again called timeout.
The Blue Devils knew they wanted to get the ball to Greenwell, hoping for a USC foul. Coach Dawn Staley countered with her defensive specialist, senior guard Olivia Gaines.
Gaines was listed as playing one minute. It was more like seven seconds. She checked in and hounded the sideline as the ball came to Greenwell – “She’s a one-woman press,” Staley proclaimed – and Gaines swiped the ball from Greenwell’s hands. Thinking of driving, the diminutive guard changed her mind and called timeout with 10.9 seconds to go.
USC had all kinds of options. Trust Welch to drive and either hit or get a foul? Pound the ball to Alaina Coates? Isolate Mitchell for a long jumper? Staley trusted Mitchell to shoot on a pick-and-roll, and if it broke down, to make something happen.
The play broke down. Mitchell made something happen.
Scrambling at the top of the key, Mitchell drove, spun and threw up a floater. It hit side rim as Wilson, following the shot, planted in the lane.
The 6-foot-5 freshman leaped, caught, landed and leaped again, rising through several hands trying to deflect it. Directly in front of the basket, Wilson placed the ball directly into the white square etched on the glass – and raced downcourt to set up on defense with her wildly celebrating teammates.
“Tiff being Tiff, created a shot. That’s why we put the ball in her hands,” Staley said. “Fortunately for us, we have someone like A’ja Wilson who can rebound the ball and put it back in.”
The Gamecocks’ defense held Duke to 31.6 percent shooting and forced 22 turnovers. Only Greenwell finished in double figures, with 12 points. USC’s offense was challenged and taken out of its comfort zone, but it was like Staley has been preaching – this team always has one more weapon to fire.
In this case, it was Dozier scoring 11 points, including two 3s in the second half; Gaines with the crucial steal and Wilson remembering to rebound, no matter what. Staley thought her team would be good this year; but a win like Sunday’s still gives it something to build on.
“I just tip my hat to our team,” Staley said. “They fought, and fought, and fought.”
NOTE: Freshman forward Jatarie White missed her second straight game with a right foot injury.
SOUTH CAROLINA (8-0)
Sessions 0-3 0-0 0, Welch 4-11 0-0 8, Mitchell 2-10 2-3 7, Dozier 4-7 1-2 11, Ibiam 4-7 0-1 8, Cuevas 0-0 0-0 0, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0, Wilson 4-8 2-5 10, Roy 0-1 0-0 0, Coates 2-6 3-5 7. Totals 20-53 8-16 51.
Williams 2-7 1-2 5, Calhoun 3-12 0-0 8, Stevens 2-9 0-0 5, Riggs 1-3 0-0 3, Greenwell 4-9 4-4 12, Johnson 2-6 5-6 9, Cooper 0-1 0-0 0, Chidom 3-8 0-1 6, Henson 1-2 0-0 2, Belton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-57 10-13 50.
Halftime_Duke 21-17. 3-Point Goals_South Carolina 3-12 (Dozier 2-5, Mitchell 1-4, Roy 0-1, Sessions 0-2), Duke 4-19 (Calhoun 2-8, Riggs 1-2, Stevens 1-3, Cooper 0-1, Johnson 0-2, Greenwell 0-3). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_South Carolina 36 (Coates 10), Duke 44 (Stevens 12). Assists_South Carolina 8 (Mitchell 4), Duke 8 (Chidom 3). Total Fouls_South Carolina 14, Duke 16. Technical_South Carolina Bench. A_6,004.