South Carolina labeled it as rust, which was to be expected 12 days after it last played. And the Gamecocks get another game to show that that’s all it was, which is all they’re interested in this time of year.
So that was the comfort after a 77-41 NCAA Tournament-opening win over Jacksonville on Friday.
Unease will be addressed before Sunday.
“I thought we came out a little rusty, maybe Jacksonville had something to do with that,” coach Dawn Staley said, “but I thought after halftime, we made a few adjustments and we opened the game up.”
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The Gamecocks (32-1) handily won, as they were supposed to against a 16-seed Dolphins team making its first tournament appearance. Jacksonville dressed only eight and had nobody taller than 6-foot-1, so USC figured to do its usual – pound the ball to posts Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson and pick the final score.
They did that, Coates and Wilson combining for 37 points and 21 rebounds. USC’s defense was ferocious, hammering Jacksonville with early blocked shots and steals. There was never a point where the mostly-garnet crowd had to worry about claiming a dubious piece of 16-over-1 history.
But the energy, aggression and anger that defined USC’s SEC tournament wasn’t there. The Gamecocks seemed content to let the game come to them instead of taking it.
Naismith Trophy finalist Tiffany Mitchell scored 14 points, but also had five turnovers and missed her first four 3-point tries. The Gamecocks were 16-of-24 from the line. With such a decided height advantage, the plan seemed simple – paint, paint, paint all night.
USC shot nine 3-pointers before it made one as the Dophins (22-11) hung tough on the glass, and they finished 3-of-15 from long range.
“I think we were just taking what the defense was giving us,” Mitchell said. “The initial gameplan was to go inside, but we just kind of settled for jump shots and then she told us to pound it into the paint because obviously, it wasn’t working for us early on.”
“I’d like for us to not have so many lapses in our offense. I thought we got a little trigger-happy early on,” Staley said. “Part of the reason, I don’t think our post players were dominant in the paint, and when they’re not dominant in the paint, our perimeter players feel like they have a better shot at making shots.”
Again, they hadn’t played in a while and they were never in danger of losing. So they’ll take the bad with the good.
They just want to limit the bad to Friday, and get rid of it before Sunday’s game with Kansas State that sends the winner to the Sweet 16.
“I think we always have a weapon, with our defense,” Mitchell said. “Our defense creates offense for us.”
“Our program was built on defense,” Staley said. “For us, the offense has to catch up with our defense. If that does happen, we look like a totally different basketball team.”
Only ahead 12 at the half, the Gamecocks fed Coates for two possessions in the third quarter and she responded with four points. Mitchell swished a jumper and USC was off on a 21-9 quarter to salt the game.
Star of the game: Coates missed some early shots, but finished 9-of-14 from the field with 22 points. She had her 18th double-double of the season and threw in three steals.
Play of the game: Bianca Cuevas was about to waste another possession when it seemed, like earlier in the year, she didn’t see the clock. Instead, she drove with two seconds to go in the third, stopped and lifted a one-hander into the net.
Stat of the game: The Gamecocks were 3-of-15 from the 3-point line. It was curious why they kept lifting so many shots when it was clear Jacksonville couldn’t stop the interior game.
FROM THE BASELINE
Step One: The Gamecocks certainly fed off the crowd’s energy. Even when they were walking into the building during the Kansas State-George Washington game, the crowd was applauding.
They’ll try to bottle that up for the Badlands next week – if they can get past the Wildcats.
I get it, but … : Received quite a few messages about how USC’s slow start “would have them down by double-digits against UConn.” That’s probably true, but UConn is UConn … and it’s no guarantee USC will play UConn.
Of course, it would have been comforting for the Gamecocks to play Friday like they played in the SEC tournament, but even if they had, it’s not like folks would be sitting here saying, “They can beat UConn like that.”
Let’s talk about UConn later. Much later.
If at all.
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Buie 1-4 0-0 3, J. Brown 1-2 2-2 4, Dawkins 0-3 0-0 0, Reddick 1-7 2-2 4, B. Brown 6-16 2-2 17, Moede 0-1 0-0 0, Gordon 2-6 0-0 4, Mercer 3-11 3-3 9. Totals 14-50 9-9 41.
SOUTH CAROLINA (32-1)
Sessions 2-5 4-4 8, Wilson 6-16 3-7 15, Mitchell 5-11 2-2 14, Dozier 0-1 0-0 0, Coates 9-14 4-5 22, Cuevas 4-6 0-0 8, Cliney 1-1 0-0 2, Roy 2-6 0-0 5, Imovbioh 0-0 1-4 1, White 0-4 2-2 2, Farmer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-64 16-24 77.
3-Point Goals_Jacksonville 4-12 (B. Brown 3-7, Buie 1-2, Reddick 0-3), South Carolina 3-15 (Mitchell 2-6, Roy 1-5, Sessions 0-1, Dozier 0-1, Cuevas 0-2). Fouled Out_Dawkins. Rebounds_Jacksonville 30 (Mercer 6), South Carolina 44 (Wilson 11). Assists_Jacksonville 6 (Moede 3), South Carolina 13 (Sessions 4). Total Fouls_Jacksonville 23, South Carolina 10. Attendance_10,276.