College Sports

USC women’s team finds different heroes on different nights

South Carolina’s Alaina Coates comes up with the ball after battling Florida State’s Ivey Slaughter, left, and Emiah Bingley during the Greesnboro Regional final last week.
South Carolina’s Alaina Coates comes up with the ball after battling Florida State’s Ivey Slaughter, left, and Emiah Bingley during the Greesnboro Regional final last week. tglantz@thestate.com

Tiffany Mitchell led or tied for the team lead in scoring in South Carolina’s two wins in the Greensboro Regional, which wasn’t surprising. A two-time SEC Player of the Year and first-team All-American should do that.

But if she didn’t – or doesn’t on Sunday in the Final Four – the Gamecocks were equipped to overcome it.

“We’re not fazed as much by Tiffany Mitchell not having a great night because of the depth we have on our basketball team,” coach Dawn Staley said during the SEC tournament. “This particular year, (our bench) has been in situations where they had an impact on the game. They can draw on those experiences if Tiffany Mitchell had a night like tonight.”

Staley was speaking of the Gamecocks’ semifinal win against LSU, where Mitchell was 1-of-6 for four points and had five turnovers. Yet, USC won by 20.

How? Same as throughout the year. Stars have an off night, the rest take over.

USC’s greatest weapon is its bench, the team’s depth absurdly talented and holding an advantage over most opponents. No team the Gamecocks play can do what they can – bring four McDonald’s All-Americans off the bench – and the non-All-Americans aren’t chopped liver.

Defensive specialist Olivia Gaines played less than two seconds against Duke, yet recorded the crucial steal that allowed USC to set up its game-winning possession. “Like Coach said, always be ready,” Gaines said. “I was ready at that moment.”

A’ja Wilson tipped in Mitchell’s miss to win that game, led a rally against Syracuse in the Bahamas where USC trailed by 10 with less than seven minutes to play and won SEC Freshman of the Year despite playing less than half of every game. Bianca Cuevas, a player who can be as error-prone as she is terrific, was magnificent against Florida State, triggering USC’s run to get back in the game.

It’s been a new weapon every game, a different hero every night. Staley is the proverbial Cheshire cat when discussing it – she knew the team had the possibility to be that efficient, but it was going to take a lot of players producing even if they didn’t play many minutes.

“Every time we take the floor, the key to winning every game is our bench production,” Staley said. “I do believe we have the best bench in the country. We insert that confidence in them because we feel that way. We truly feel like that.”

Tina Roy has provided solid play at backup point guard and her 3-point shooting prowess helped beat North Carolina in the Sweet 16. She scored 15 against LSU in the SEC tournament and has led the team in assists eight times.

Alaina Coates, a double-double machine, is the team’s best post player and still comes off the bench. She is a two-time SEC second-team selection, made the all-defensive team this season and was MVP of the Greensboro Regional.

Asia Dozier starts but never has been known to destroy the stat sheet, yet she never forgot how to play. Her 3-point shooting buried Syracuse in the second round of the tournament, causing Orange coach Quentin Hillsman to say, “We knew that if they came out and started making 3s, we were going to have a problem,” he said. “And we had a problem.”

Dozier was also intentionally fouled by Florida State, the Seminoles gambling on a player who had made 6-of-9 all year to miss and give them another chance. Dozier calmly swished all four of her shots.

As they head into the Final Four, the Gamecocks want Mitchell, their most talented player, to do what she does. With her opening defenses with her ability to twist interior defenders into pretzels and shoot from the outside, the others, bench or starter, are free to perform their roles.

But if she can’t or it’s one of those nights or she’s in foul trouble, no problem. Not comfortable, perhaps, but not a problem.

“To have our player of the year not have the best night, we were really encouraged about who we were able to bring off the bench,” Staley said. “We called their number, and they answered that number time and time again.”

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NCAA WOMEN’S FINAL FOUR

Sunday’s Semifinals: USC vs. Notre Dame, 6:30 p.m.; Maryland vs. UConn, 8:30 p.m.

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Fla.

TV: ESPN

on page a1

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