As the end of 2017 approaches, we’ve already seen the conclusion to the first portion of South Carolina women’s basketball’s season.
After 12 games, the No. 4 Gamecocks have finished off their nonconference schedule, with the notable exception of their matchup with No. 1 Connecticut on Feb. 1. But starting on New Year’s Eve, USC will open conference play against Texas A&M, embarking on a two-month stretch in which it will play SEC opponents twice a week like clockwork.
So before Dawn Staley’s team starts the marathon of play that will likely not let up until March or beyond, let’s take stock of how the 2017 part of the 2017-2018 season has unfolded for South Carolina, and what it could tell us about the future.
Best Win: Duke
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The Gamecocks have won 11 games to date this season, but there’s been a wide discrepancy in the kinds of victories they’ve put together, and Staley has pronounced her famously high standards met on only a few occasions.
The best of those games by far was a 72-52 home rout of No. 14 Duke. South Carolina has beaten opponents by bigger margins, put up gaudier stats and faced tougher environments on the road, but the win over Duke was a complete victory in which the young Gamecocks took the lead four minutes into the first quarter and never looked back.
Playing in just its second game without injured guard Lindsey Spann, USC followed the lead of forwards A’ja Wilson and Alexis Jennings, who both double-doubled and dominated the game down low, while eight Gamecocks scored and the Blue Devils never came within one possession for the game’s final three quarters.
But what really set the performance apart was South Carolina’s perimeter defense. Duke is ranked 15th in the nation in 3-point percentage, and South Carolina is 281st in 3-point defense. But for this one matchup, the Gamecocks were locked in on defense on the outside, holding Duke to 1-of-10 from beyond the arc.
“This team was locked in,” Staley said of her players after the game. “And we could have easily said, we didn’t have this person or that person and felt sorry for ourselves, but we’re not that kind of team. Our team really feels like we’re always going to have enough to win a game on any given night. ... If they can play this way for 40 minutes, this is who we are, this is what we want our identity to be.”
Worst Performance: College of Charleston
On the other hand, South Carolina has only lost once, to then-No. 6 Notre Dame over Thanksgiving weekend in the final of the Gulf Coast Showcase. But that was a 92-85 defeat coming off two very tough games against Rutgers and St. John’s, and the Irish have made the defeat look better by playing No. 1 UConn very tough and rising all the way to No. 2.
By contrast, the Gamecocks handled College of Charleston easily, winning 69-43, but they did not look good doing it. Going up against the poor-shooting, undersized Cougars, USC simply could not shoot the ball in the first half, going 36 percent from the field.
Then, in the second half, when the shooting improved, the defense suffered, as Charleston outrebounded the Gamecocks and nearly outscored its much more talented opponent, 33-35. South Carolina also had as many turnovers as it did assists, something it didn’t even do against Notre Dame.
“It’s quite simple,” Staley said afterward. “For us, we’re not where we need to be. It was a game in which we were mentally challenged.”
MVP: A’ja Wilson Freshman of the Year: Bianca Jackson Most Improved Player: Tyasha Harris
The first two categories are blindingly obvious — Wilson has cemented her status as National Player of the Year frontrunner with 24.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game with a 58.3 field goal percentage, while Jackson is playing big minutes and averaging more points and nearly as many assists as Harris, already one of the Staley’s best first-year players, did her freshman year.
Most Improved, however, is a little trickier. Junior guard Doniyah Cliney is playing more than she ever has and her stats are way up, redshirt junior forward Alexis Jennings has been better than she ever was at Kentucky after sitting out her transfer year in 2016-2017, and even Wilson has posted dramatic improvements.
In the end though, the edge goes to Harris, who said before the season she wanted to become less of a placeholder and more of a scorer in South Carolina’s offense and has done just that. Through 12 games, Harris is averaging 10.1 points per contest, up from 5.6 her freshman season. She also leads the SEC in steals and assists per game and has improved her shooting percentage, rebounding rate and usage rate. Across the board, she’s been better, and she leads the team in minutes, speaking to the amount of faith Staley has in her.
Most Room to Grow: Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
This is another tough category to pick due to the number of new faces Staley is coaching this year — Cliney is improved, but she also isn’t outstanding, Jennings has gone missing at times and freshmen Lele Grissett and LaDazhia Williams have been pretty quiet off the bench.
Herbert Harrigan, a sophomore forward, has posted steady growth from her first campaign and is fifth on the team in points while averaging under 20 minutes per game and playing behind Wilson and Jennings. But with injuries depleting South Carolina’s guards and Wilson’s continued growth as a potential option on the wing, Herbert Harrigan has the opportunity to make the Gamecocks’ offense even better.
We’ve seen Staley use a three-forward lineup a few times this season, with Herbert Harrigan taking on a stretch-four, power forward role. It’s one she could flourish in, as she’s proven capable of both hitting jump shots and battling in the post. But her defense remains subpar, Staley has said, and she’s also had a bit of trouble with fouls and discipline. If she can figure those weak spots out, she would make USC a whole lot bigger, stronger and more versatile.
South Carolina finishes off 2017 and opens SEC play against Texas A&M on Dec. 31.