At times Tuesday night, it felt as though it was just A’ja Wilson, not No. 5 South Carolina, vs. College of Charleston, as the rest of the Gamecocks struggled to generate any sort of offensive rhythm, especially in the early going.
As it turned out, Wilson was almost enough, as she nearly outscored the Cougars all by herself through three quarters and USC (9-1) posted a 69-43 victory in its final game before players break for final exams.
The lopsided score, however, does not fully account for the ugly, sloppy contest that unfolded for most of the night at Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks shot just 41 percent, including 36 percent in the first half, after entering the game hitting 51.1 percent of their field goals.
They also turned the ball over as many times as they dished out assists (17), and head coach Dawn Staley looked extremely frustrated on the sideline just two days after her team put together its best performance of the season routing No. 14 Duke.
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“I mean, it’s quite simple. We’re not where we need to be. It was a game in which we were mentally challenged to come out and play the type of basketball that we saw on Sunday. For our team, just being young, gotta still try to get them to meet that mark again,” Staley said.
The issue, Staley said, was mental fatigue, as South Carolina played its sixth game in 12 days and failed to play with the consistency their coaches demand.
“When I saw it happening, you know what is. You can’t stop it. It’s gotta kind of run its course, they have to get it out of their system. They try. They tried to give effort, it’s just mental fatigue. And when that gets a hold of you, it’s hard. It takes a really strong person to fight off that wave, and I just don’t think they’re sophisticated enough to do it,” Staley said of her young team.
“We got a little tired in that our mentality was just out of place and out of whack,” sophomore guard Tyasha Harris, who had nine points and seven assists, said. “But the effort was there, and we just got to get back to work.”
The Gamecocks coaching staff was especially frustrated with the team’s slow start to both halves of the game — the Cougars outscored USC a combined 15-10 in the first three minutes of the first and third quarters.
“(We spend a) pretty good amount of time we spend trying to get off a fast start at the beginning of the game and in the third quarter. Those are areas which are stressors for us, because we’re inconsistent in those areas. When you start the game off with two turnovers back to back, it gives you a good sign of how the day is going to go. So we gotta clean that up,” Staley said.
Only Wilson looked like herself, collecting a double double in just 12 minutes on the court and finishing with 26 points and 15 rebounds, both near her season highs, even while riding the bench for the game’s final 12 minutes. She also boosted her career scoring total to 1,882 points, putting her four short of passing Gamecock great Tiffany Mitchell for fifth place on South Carolina’s all-time list.
“It’s a good thing, I guess,” Wilson said of her success powering the Gamecocks early and keeping them ahead. “My teammates really help me get the basketball in my hands, and I try to make everything work. I try to just put points on the board for us, because that’s what we’re going to need at the end of the game. They do a great job of finding me, they do a great job of trusting me with the basketball.”
For the third straight game, USC was without injured guards Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Lindsey Spann, and the team’s 3-point shooting remained lackluster — 1-for-10.
There was also a scary moment early in the fourth quarter as junior guard Doniyah Cliney went down hard in the paint, clutching what appeared to be her ankle. After a few moments, she was able to get up and walk to the bench under her own power, and Staley said she will be fine moving forward.
“I said to myself, ‘I hope she’s not going to jump up and walk back over to the bench.’ And then she did the exact thing I said she shouldn’t do. I think sometimes it scares them when they go down like that,” Staley said.
South Carolina now has a 12-day break before it returns to the court on Dec. 17 to face Savannah State at home. Over that break, Wilson said her main goal is simple.
“Pass our exams,” Wilson said. “When we come back it’s going to be SEC time, so we’re going to be ready to rock and roll, but our biggest thing right now is just passing our exams.”