David Cloninger

Newsflash: A’ja Wilson’s still really, really good

A’ja Wilson
A’ja Wilson tglantz@thestate.com

It’s not that she wasn’t playing well. A’ja Wilson was doing what she normally does, but as South Carolina’s season began, it was apparent that the Gamecocks had so many options beside Wilson that she didn’t have to be the focal point.

She didn’t forget how to be it.

I didn’t get to watch most of the game – I was at the men’s game – but from what I heard, Texas double-teamed Alaina Coates early and when she got two fouls, she had to sit. With Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray not doing much, the Gamecocks turned to Wilson.

So she nonchalantly scored a career-high 31, adding 12 rebounds with four blocks and three steals. Yes, she’s every bit the All-American and what ESPN has called the best player in the country.

Dawn Staley said this is one of her deepest teams, and despite only dressing 11, one can see why. It’s pick-your-poison with the Gamecocks, since even with the dominant Coates taking a seat USC still had a player nearly single-handedly win the game.

There are still some concerns. USC has been one of the country’s best defensive teams over the past three years but isn’t very tight in that area this season (despite holding UT star Brooke McCarty to seven points). Of course, not having Coates in the middle to swat shots played into that Thursday, but Staley mentioned defense as an issue even in the exhibition game.

Still, USC has beaten three Top-15 teams on the road in its first six games. If the Gamecocks are overcoming some defensive lapses by being able to score a lot more, it may not look as pretty but it still goes down as a W.

Changing of the guard?

I had a bet with myself that freshman Ty Harris would be starting at point guard by midseason. She’s well on her way.

Harris had a marvelous game against Texas and that was after she guarded Louisville star Asia Durr in Springfield. Durr scored 10 in the first five minutes; with Harris on her like the mumps the rest of the game, she scored three.

Bianca Cuevas-Moore is still going to play and there are times where she is invaluable to this team (she had seven points, two steals and two assists in Austin). And I’m sure she will continue to start for the time being.

But if some of those drives to the basket keep resulting in missed shots or turnovers, Staley’s going to do what’s best for the team. Playing point guard for Staley is the toughest job on campus, but having seen La’Keisha Sutton and Ieasia Walker and Khadijah Sessions flourish in the role, even though they had to not be the takeover scorers they knew they could be, it’s a role that’s vital.

Perhaps there’s a rotation looming but Harris at least made a statement that she’s here to stay.

O to D

The best offense is a good defense, they say. Hard to argue the way the Gamecock men are playing.

Thursday was their fourth straight game where they held an opponent to 50 or less points. Vermont was averaging 74 in the eight games before it.

It’s the defense Frank Martin has coached for five years and now finally has the pieces to display it. His first year was an inheritance of spare parts, where he could get them to defend the perimeter but had zero rim protection. Then there were problems of collapsing on drivers in the paint that led to kickouts for wide-open 3-pointers.

Now, his guards are able to keep opponents from finding open looks around the wing, and if they do get the ball inside, he has the height to deny that shot. The Catamounts are a team that likes to shoot the 3 (over 21 attempts per game, 36 percent success) and the Gamecocks held them to 5-of-20.

Martin wasn’t pleased with the first-half effort but a 13-1 run out of the locker room settled the game. Much of that was defense – Vermont scored nine points in the first 14 minutes of the second half.

“It’s four years of practicing, four years of playing, four years of learning how to watch film,” Martin said, pointing out that USC hasn’t made a lot of open shots but it hasn’t affected the defense. “They try to run offense against us and when we’re good, they can’t run what they practice, so they start ball-screening. Our guards are better at ball-screen defense, but now Chris and Maik, they’re real good at ball-screen defense. So now people can’t just ball-screen and crack us and eliminate the pressure that we put on people.”

Martin was worried about the Vermont game, since it was coming after USC controlled every bit of the Michigan and Syracuse games and found out Monday it was the No. 20 team in the country. They looked good in practice but didn’t control from the tip early in the game.

That changed at halftime, though, Martin’s challenge to the team being heard by everyone and implemented by the upperclassmen. Defense is tight, P.J. Dozier and Chris Silva are improving by leaps and bounds, Maik Kotsar gives USC something it hasn’t had the last four years and the bench is always contributing something (Sedee Keita had four points and three rebounds in 10 minutes Thursday).

It’s going well. USC wants to make sure it stays that way.

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