David Cloninger

Gamecocks’ fourth title won’t be easy to obtain

South Carolina’s Kaela Davis is third on the team with 13.6 points per game and leads the Gamecocks with 25 three-pointers made.
South Carolina’s Kaela Davis is third on the team with 13.6 points per game and leads the Gamecocks with 25 three-pointers made. tglantz@thestate.com

Nobody talked about it in November and December because it wasn’t important then. South Carolina loaded its early schedule with some of the best teams in the country and needed to concentrate on that.

The Gamecocks got through it with only one yip, dispatching the best teams and doing it mostly away from home. Then they were off for a long break, remembering how they played in the one loss, tightening their weaknesses and preparing to defend what’s been one of the most stunning pieces of the last three seasons.

The Streak.

USC has won 22 straight games against the SEC, which has become the strongest and deepest league in the country. The league put nine teams in the NCAA tournament last year, yet none of them could figure out how to beat the Gamecocks in the regular season.

USC has gone 45-3 the past three regular seasons in the SEC, winning three conference championships. It has lost only once over the past two, recording a perfect season last year. The 22 straight are bookended by consecutive SEC tournament titles and the Gamecocks joined Auburn and Tennessee as the only teams to win three straight regular-season championships.

A fourth glimmers. USC was picked to win it, but the league’s other teams may have something to say about it. The schedule is conducive, the toughest games at home, but beginning Sunday against Alabama, the Gamecocks face 16 teams with the same goal – knock USC off its pedestal and prevent it from becoming one of only two teams to ever win four straight SEC championships.

The four crucial elements to claiming No. 4:

1. DEFENSE

While USC was running roughshod over the league the past three years, everybody credited the arsenal of offensive weapons. The Gamecocks had multiple options to shoot, but their defense was very underrated.

USC constantly ranked in the country’s Top 10 of scoring defense and used steals and blocks to set up easy buckets. This year, while it’s climbed back to 28th, it’s still a far cry from what it was.

2. BIANCA

There is no question Bianca Cuevas-Moore has the speed to be an elite player. Once she decides to kick on the afterburners and turn those balls knocked loose at the top of the key into points, nobody’s going to stop her.

The problem is getting her to do it consistently, and to make good decisions most of the time instead of some of the time.

“If she could just mix it up and hit some people on the outside, I think it could give her a counter,” coach Dawn Staley said of her point guard’s fearless drives into the lane. “It’s just something that she has to evolve.”

The aggression is good but Cuevas-Moore has to make those shots, or draw the defense in to kick out the ball for a wide-open shot. Her first quarter against UCLA was the complete cycle of “Bad Bianca,” while the second half was “Good Bianca.”

The Gamecocks need a point guard who can direct and score, with an emphasis on the former.

“We have those talks, but when you’re playing and your adrenaline is flowing, you get lost in the moment,” Staley said. “Those are teachable moments, moments in which she’s got to get better because it will make our team better.”

3. KD

Kaela Davis immediately made herself known by scoring 37 points in the season-opener. She can hit from anywhere and once she gets hot, watch out.

Got to get her hot immediately for every game on the schedule. The Gamecocks don’t need her to go 1-of-13 from the floor.

It’s not a crucial part of the game, but it would relax the pressure put on the defense. The Gamecocks have plenty of other scorers – and as long as A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates are on the floor, that’s where the points will be concentrated – but Davis can open the game up so much that USC needs to get the ball to her.

Yet it does no good if she’s firing up those long-range shots and getting beat to the rebound.

“I did tell her she’s taking some shots off-balance. I think sometimes she forgets how tall she is out there,” Staley said. “We can’t afford for her to shoot that way all the time. She knows she can still have off nights and we can still win basketball games.”

4. SILENT ASSASSIN

Allisha Gray can be a takeover player when she wants to be. Yet she’s … not hesitant, but content to let that chance come to her.

“I try not to press too much or force anything,” Gray said. “I’m capable of doing it, but I don’t want to force anything.”

She was a standout player in high school and dealt with the opposing attention on her during the game. During two years at North Carolina, she was again a great player but concentrated on getting the ball to the other talented players around her.

That’s what Gray is doing at USC. Yet there are times where if Davis isn’t hitting and the two bigs are out of the game, she needs to demand the ball and start going to the rim. She’s very good at it, able to twist inside and score the bucket, and it sometimes seems she’s lost in the shuffle of having so much other offensive talent around her.

“I’ll find any way possible to help the team, but coach has told me to let the game come to me,” Gray said. “It comes as you go, but I’m not forcing. ‘Silent Assassin’s’ not a bad name to have.”

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Alabama (12-1, 0-0 SEC) at No. 6 South Carolina (10-1, 0-0)

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 107.5 FM

Next game: South Carolina tips off at Auburn at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

Game starters

Alabama’s probable starters: G Jordan Lewis 5-7 Fr. (10.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg); G Meoshonti Knight 5-8 Jr. (13.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg); G Shaquera Wade 6-0 So. (12.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg); G Hannah Cook 6-0 Jr. (12.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg); F Ashley Williams 6-0 Jr. (7.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg)

South Carolina’s probable starters: G Bianca Cuevas-Moore 5-6 Jr. (6.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg); G Allisha Gray 6-0 Jr. (13.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg); G Kaela Davis 6-2 Jr. (13.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg); F A’ja Wilson 6-5 Jr. (16.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg); C Alaina Coates 6-4 Sr. (14.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg)

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