Before No. 5 South Carolina women’s basketball even took the court to play Western Carolina on Thursday, the biggest news of the night had dropped: redshirt senior guard Lindsey Spann would miss the contest with a sprained knee.
Spann’s injury left the Gamecocks (7-1) with just four guards and nine healthy and available players on their roster. So it was hardly surprising that when USC did face the Catamounts, it was the Gamecocks’ post players who did most of the heavy lifting on offense en route to a 101-43 win, their first time above the century mark this regular season.
Senior A’ja Wilson, redshirt junior Alexis Jennings and sophomore Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, all forwards, led the Gamecocks in scoring with 29, 19 and 12 points, respectively. Sophomore guard Tyasha Harris set a career-high with 10 assists to go with 10 points, the first double-double of her career.
Western Carolina, which has lost four in a row, had its only lead 1:29 into the game, 2-0. It lasted 10 seconds, before South Carolina went on a 17-0 run. The lead never dropped below 13 again, as USC won the rebounding battle 45-22 and forced 24 turnovers.
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“When we give up as many points as we’ve given up, (defense) is a stressor for us,” coach Dawn Staley said. “We really concentrated on our live-ball turnovers, just defending those, and not giving second-chance points, and I thought we took care of that for the most part.”
“Coach Staley told us we needed to be more aggressive, and we were just basically working on it,” junior guard Doniyah Cliney said.
Without Spann, a sharpshooter who entered the game leading the SEC in 3-point percentage, all of South Carolina’s first quarter points came in the paint or from the free throw line. For the rest of the game, the Gamecocks hit just four 3-pointers, tied for their fewest on the season, and ended with 66 points in the paint, their most of the year.
“Coming into this game, we knew we had to focus on us,” Herbert Harrigan said of the lopsided nature of the contest. “We were just going out there and doing what we do.”
Freshman forwards LaDazhia Williams and Lele Grissett got some of their most significant playing time of the season, with Williams putting up 11 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes and Grissett scoring four in 14 minutes.
Fellow freshman Bianca Jackson, a guard, earned the first start of her career in Spann’s absence. She collected seven points, four rebounds and three assists.
“Bianca Jackson, she’s solid,” coach Dawn Staley said. “The more and more experience, the better she looks. I thought LaDazhia had a little life to her today. Lele, she has moments where she looks great, and she has moments where she needs to improve in certain areas.”
But as usual, it was Wilson who led the way, as she came just short of posting her third 30-point game in four games and shot 68 percent from the field while also swiping three steals. She is now averaging 24.5 points per game, nearly twice that of her next closest teammate.
“A’ja’s played this role in (high school), she’s played this role for us throughout the course of her career,” Staley said of Wilson’s dominance. “She’s just got more space to do all those things now, and she understands she plays a big role in our success.”
Thursday’s win ensured South Carolina avoided its first back-to-back losses since February 2013. USC lost its first game of the season this past Sunday against Notre Dame, 92-85. It also marked Staley’s 400th career victory in her 18th coaching season. When asked what she thought of when informed of the accomplishment, Staley simply said, “401.”
That 401st win is likely to be significantly more challenging, as South Carolina plays No. 14 Duke on Sunday. The Blue Devils are coming off an upset of No. 8 Ohio State on Thursday and feature guard Lexie Brown, a preseason contender for ACC Player of the Year. Duke and USC tip off at noon at Colonial Life Arena.