K.I.S.S.C. – Keep It Simple, South Carolina.
The No. 2 Gamecocks went back to basics in an 83-58 rout of No. 20 Missouri on Sunday, first unleashing a devastating defense and then turning to their most valuable player when the Tigers rallied in the third quarter. Senior Tiffany Mitchell, as she did at Vanderbilt last game and so many other times over the past four years, handled the offense on a poor shooting day to squash the comeback attempt.
“Coach Staley gives me a look to kind of take over sometimes,” said Mitchell, who scored seven of her game-high 19 points in one third-quarter burst. “I just kind of read and get within the flow of the game.”
The defense played its best half of the season and held the Tigers (14-2, 1-2 SEC) to 19 percent shooting in the first, star Sophie Cunningham sitting with two quick fouls and zero points. But the Gamecocks (15-0, 3-0) were still struggling to find their offense, the steals and fast breaks they collected ending in missed chip shots.
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Missouri regrouped and sliced an 18-point halftime lead to 10, and Mitchell said, “Enough.” Her layup begat a turnover from Cierra Porter, which became a dish from Tina Roy to her for a corner 3-pointer, USC’s first of the game. With Colonial Life Arena roaring, Mitchell swiped a ball from Kayla McDowell and laid it in, forcing a Tiger timeout.
That put Missouri down to stay, even thought USC’s defense wasn’t nearly as productive as it was in the first half and the offense continued to struggle. While the Gamecocks wound up shooting 42.1 percent and four players were in double figures, USC missed a great number of shots three feet from the hole.
It’s another part of their game to work on as they prepare for the first of two matchups with No. 10 Kentucky on Thursday. The two rivals routinely try to win by physicality, and as Staley pointed out, playing Vanderbilt and Missouri back-to-back has prepared the Gamecocks to take some punishment.
“I think it was a prelude to this game, with Vandy,” Staley said. “It was great that we played two physical teams, like Vandy and like Mizzou. I think it jolted us into being prepared for this particular contest, because we knew it’d be very physical.
“When someone can’t hit you with a body blow that you aren’t expecting, I think it softens the hit.”
With so many offensive stars trying to work within the system, USC has struggled somewhat this season. With that in mind, the Gamecocks’ defense led the first half against Missouri.
Sophomore A’ja Wilson joked in the preseason that she wanted to be named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Her performance suggests it’s much more than a good quote.
Wilson tied a career-high with six blocks and added 11 rebounds to her 11 points.
“I kind of joked about being SEC Defensive Player of the Year, but that was to just really get my mindset together,” Wilson said. “I think I am trying my best to form into a better defensive player and I think coach and my teammates are doing a pretty good job of really just holding me accountable and playing that defense.”
“I hope the evolution of A’ja’s defense is much like Alaina’s offense,” Staley said. “For her, the goal will be dangled out there and it will be hers for the taking.”
NOTE: Alaina Coates scored her 1,000th career point on the game’s first bucket, a three-point play.
Mitchell’s scoring burst ended Mizzou’s comeback bid. It was as if the Gamecocks were waving their fingers, saying, “No, no.”
Stars of the game: Mitchell handled the offense and Wilson led the defense. It’s a great advantage for USC to be able to use Wilson so effectively on either side of the ball.
Play of the game: Tina Roy found Mitchell in the corner and she drilled the Gamecocks’ first 3-pointer. It was part of her seven-point burst to answer Mizzou’s run.
Stat of the game: Each team did a masterful job on the defensive boards and limited second chances. The Gamecocks had 29 defensive rebounds, the Tigers 26.
FROM THE BASELINE
Two halves: The Gamecocks’ first-half defense was relentless. If USC had been able to shoot, it would have been a 40-point game. The defense slackened in the second as the offense picked up.
Putting the two together would be very helpful with road games against Kentucky and Mississippi State on the horizon.
Lonely bench: With Kaydra Duckett’s departure, USC is down to 11 players. Perhaps Dawn Staley can hold walk-on tryouts … or hand a wig to one of the guys who practices against the women’s team.
Who: South Carolina at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC Network
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S. Cunningham 4-13 0-0 9, L. Cunningham 1-3 0-0 3, C. Porter 2-7 6-8 10, Frericks 1-4 7-8 9, Michaelis 3-11 0-0 7, Doty 0-0 2-2 2, Mo. Stock 0-4 2-2 2, B. Porter 0-1 0-0 0, Ma. Stock 2-3 0-0 5, Hudyn 0-2 0-0 0, Shephard 0-0 0-0 0, McDowell 3-5 1-1 7, Robinson 2-5 0-0 4. Totals 18-58 18-21 58.
SOUTH CAROLINA (15-0)
Sessions 2-6 4-4 9, Wilson 3-10 5-6 11, Mitchell 5-12 8-9 19, Dozier 1-3 0-0 2, Coates 3-3 7-12 13, Cuevas 2-6 2-2 6, Cliney 2-5 1-1 5, Roy 1-5 0-3 3, Imovbioh 2-2 0-0 4, White 3-5 5-6 11. Totals 24-57 32-43 83.
3-Point Goals_Missouri 4-21 (L. Cunningham 1-1, Ma. Stock 1-2, Michaelis 1-5, S. Cunningham 1-5, C. Porter 0-1, B. Porter 0-1, McDowell 0-1, Robinson 0-2, Mo. Stock 0-3), South Carolina 3-14 (Sessions 1-2, Roy 1-5, Mitchell 1-5, Cuevas 0-1, White 0-1). Fouled Out_S. Cunningham, Frericks. Rebounds_Missouri 37 (C. Porter 7), South Carolina 39 (Coates 12). Assists_Missouri 11 (Robinson 3), South Carolina 10 (Imovbioh, Mitchell, Roy 2). Total Fouls_Missouri 34, South Carolina 22.