A week after coach Dawn Staley said her team needed to put in more effort defensively, South Carolina women’s basketball went out and did just that, throttling Alabama State, 99-31, to open its regular season with a win Friday.
All told, the Gamecocks forced almost as many turnovers and drew as many fouls as points they allowed, taking the ball away from the Hornets 29 times and getting them to commit 27 personal fouls.
“We moved the needle from a defensive standpoint,” Staley said. “I think we got overzealous by probably fouling a lot more jump shooters than I would like. But the intensity was there. The focus was there.”
With senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore sidelined with a sprained knee, every other South Carolina player got at least 10 minutes on the floor, and everyone scored, a fact Staley said would be important for building the team’s depth ahead of its next game, an away clash with No. 15 Maryland.
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“It’s a game also in which you can play your full roster and get them some experience that they’ll need when we have to take on Maryland on Monday night,” Staley said. “To get the jitters out of playing their first college game.”
Leading the way Friday were some familiar faces — A’ja Wilson recorded 16 points and 10 rebounds — and some new ones — graduate transfer Lindsey Spann chipped in 16 of her own. After an offseason in which many fans and pundits wondered who would fill the offensive void left by Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis and Alaina Coates, newcomers Spann and Alexis Jennings seemed up to the task, as Jennings added seven points and nine rebounds.
But the story of the night was the Gamecocks’ defense, an area Staley said needed to be improved after USC defeated Coker in its lone exhibition, 116-56. After allowing the Cobras to 33.3 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from 3, South Carolina held the Hornets to 20.4 percent and 33.3 percent, respectively. The Gamecocks also recorded 21 steals and 10 blocks.
Junior guard Doniyah Cliney, who entered the year as a relative unknown to many observers, started for USC and led the team with five steals.
Moving forward, however, Staley, Wilson and Spann all said the team needs to improve on the defensive glass, where it allowed Alabama State to grab more offensive rebounds (17) than defensive ones (14).
“Boxing out, rebounding, keeping them off the offensive glass,” Spann said when asked what the team could do better against Maryland. “We definitely need to focus on what we can get better, especially off this game, and rebounding is one of them. (Maryland) is usually a good rebounding team.”
Alabama State had the lead briefly at the beginning of the game, 3-2. From there, coach Freda Jackson’s team was never close again, allowing a 23-0 run that effectively ended things. Instead, Jackson had to content herself with watching her daughter, South Carolina freshman Bianca Jackson, scoring eight points in 28 minutes.
“Shoot, the way (Bianca) played, she needs to come to every game,” Wilson joked. “She needs to coach the other team every game.”
During the game, Freda Jackson appeared emotionless when her daughter sank her first college basket in front of the Alabama State bench. Afterward, she said she anything but.
“I was like, ‘Yes!’” Jackson said of her thoughts during the moment. “It was weird, but at the same time, it was great (coaching against her).”
The night opened with South Carolina receiving its 2017 SEC championship rings and unveiling the 2017 national championship banner. By now, Staley said, the team has completely moved past last season’s success, despite the numerous ceremonies and celebrations that serve as reminders of it.
“Other than the things we have to do, we’ve moved on. We’re different, we look different, it feels different (than last year),” Staley said.
South Carolina will go on the road for its first ranked opponent of the season, No. 15 Maryland, on Monday.
When the Gamecocks do play, however, they will be without Cuevas-Moore, who Staley said is unlikely to play as she recovers from her injury, sustained in practice.