David Cloninger

Cuevas-Moore takes leadership role against Georgia

Bianca Cuevas-Moore celebrates with teammates after their 66-63 win over Georgia.
Bianca Cuevas-Moore celebrates with teammates after their 66-63 win over Georgia. online@thestate.com

I went through this back when I was on the South Carolina baseball beat. You tend to lose sight of how special a long winning streak is because a team just keeps winning.

It’s going to end someday. It did in Game 2 of the 2012 College World Series Finals.

It nearly did Thursday at Colonial Life Arena, when USC’s women’s basketball team beat – survived, rather – a relentless Georgia team 66-63.

The Gamecocks have won 25 straight against SEC competition and 27 straight SEC home games. They were picked to win the regular-season championship because frankly, who in hell else would you pick after they’ve won the last three and lost a grand total of three league games doing it?

Yet we’ve seen some issues this year, even though they’re 14-1 and heading for a showdown with undefeated Mississippi State on Jan. 23. Their defense was an eyesore early in the year (but it’s improved to be the second-best in the league, and tops in field goal percentage D). Their two transfer guards are going to score, but they do it in bunches with long gaps in between. There’s already been a switch at starting point guard.

Without A’ja Wilson on Thursday, Georgia kept throwing it into the post for layups because the Gamecocks couldn’t stop it. USC couldn’t move without fouling. Kaela Davis couldn’t score, Allisha Gray seemed reluctant to take over and Alaina Coates, feeling sickly and in foul trouble, got her double-double but was lost for chunks of the game.

Bianca Cuevas-Moore bailed them all out, playing her best minutes since she rallied USC to the 2015 Final Four and scoring a career-best 25. She led, and it was fine to see – not only for her, whose career has been marked by inconsistency, but for someone to take over that role when the Gamecocks needed it.

Look. It’s so very unfair to ask somebody to be something they’re not. If a person isn’t a vocal, take-charge kind of person, they’re not going to be forced into being it.

It’s why I don’t say, “La’Keisha or Aleighsa or Tiffany would never let this happen” when it comes to this team. They’re not here. Sutton and Welch and Mitchell were tremendous players and more than that, go-to players. If it came to a last shot or key play, everybody in that arena knew who was going to have the ball.

This year’s Gamecocks have so, so much talent, but who do they turn to in a tight moment? Coates is the senior, but has always preferred to lead by example. Wilson will demand the ball but she didn’t play Thursday. Gray prefers to lurk in the background, Davis can light it up but had a really bad night against Georgia and of the point guards, Ty Harris is a freshman and Cuevas-Moore has to string together some solid games.

Cuevas-Moore led Thursday. Wilson’s cast is removed Friday and they’ll see if she can play Sunday at LSU.

If she can, she’s likely to be gimpy since she’ll have been idle for a week. Can or can’t, the Gamecocks need a leader.

Lot of choices. They decide who to pick.

Or who volunteers.

TURNING POINT

The game wasn’t truly over until Gray hit her final free throws, even though Georgia had three seconds to get off a shot. I figured USC would guard well enough to limit a final 3-pointer and they did.

Yet the game really turned on a curious possession, one Georgia coach Joni Taylor was asked about and she didn’t have an explanation. She didn’t get one from the officials, and any criticism of the officials is going to accomplish nothing but a hefty fine.

Harris nailed a 3-pointer for a 56-55 USC lead immediately after Caliya Robinson had given Georgia a two-point advantage. The whistle blew as Harris’ shot was in the air, and the ref signaled it was good.

From midcourt, I saw nobody foul Harris, so there must have been a foul on the floor. Yet they said the shot counted, so it must have come after the ball was in the air.

Mackenzie Engram was charged with the foul. But nobody shot free throws off that foul, as it was only Georgia’s second of the period.

USC inbounded under its own basket, and Gray was fouled by Haley Clark on a shot and went to shoot two, which she made. That’s five points on one possession and the Gamecocks never trailed again.

I never saw what Engram did. And I still don’t know why USC would get the ball back after a made shot there. I guess that particular decision Just Meant More.

FROM THE BASELINE

Glass: No, USC didn’t have the 6-5 Wilson, but it had the 6-4 Coates and 6-2 Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. Surely it could handle Georgia, especially with the 6-3 Robinson in foul trouble.

The Lady Bulldogs out-rebounded USC 40-34, with 29 on the defensive glass. The Gamecocks got nine second-chance points. Herbert Harrigan is a freshman that was making her first start, but she’d averaged nearly five boards a game coming off the bench. She had two Thursday.

Coates tied a school record with eight rebounds in the first quarter Thursday, and had three more the rest of the game.

KD: We know by now that Davis is a streaky shooter. When she’s on, man, is she on (37 at Ohio State). When she’s off, other weaknesses become apparent.

Only way to break a shooting slump is to keep shooting, but a shooter can also be effective defensively while working to get other shots. Davis had three steals Thursday, but she also was way too passive defensively, constantly losing the cutter to the basket when she was helping guard the high post.

Bad shooting nights happen, and Davis was 1-of-10 for four points. She had three shots blocked, where Georgia camped and waited for her to come in the lane.

Around the league: It’s all shaping up to be a slobberknocker on Jan. 23 when Mississippi State visits. The Bulldogs are 18-0 after hammering Florida Thursday.

They’re hosting Ole Miss and are at Alabama before USC (the Rebels beat Tennessee Thursday). USC is at LSU and hosting Ole Miss. The MSU-USC game needs to be a sellout.

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