David Cloninger

Cloninger: Gameplan sound, guards aren’t

Connecticut’s Katie Lou Samuelson runs upcourt with South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson.
Connecticut’s Katie Lou Samuelson runs upcourt with South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson. AP

South Carolina needed strong guard play.

The Gamecocks didn’t get it.

USC had the right game plan for Connecticut. They would space the floor, take the air out, work every possession to keep the Huskies from running and scoring. The lead went back and forth for 18 minutes as USC ran the plan well, running the shot clock and more often than not, finding A’ja Wilson inside for a bucket.

Even with Wilson and Coates being mugged under the rim for (many) no-calls, USC led and its defense was twisting Katie Lou Samuelson’s hair-bun into a sack of pretzels. The offensive rebounding was poor, the transition defense continued to be a problem, but the Gamecocks were still winning. A few more baskets to get UConn flustered, and USC could start tightening the grip.

Two minutes changed all of it.

Following a timeout, Ty Harris missed a jumper and USC turned over the rebound. Harris actually stole it back from Samuelson, then was called for charging as she was completing a 2-on-1 break to Allisha Gray for a layup.

The layup was waived. Napheesa Collier hit a 3. Alaina Coates turned it over inside, Gabby Williams scored on a jumper.

Bianca Cuevas-Moore’s pass to the top, hoping for the last shot of the period, was stolen and taken to the rack by Collier. Seven UConn points for the lead and the momentum.

The Huskies kept denying the inside (Wilson and Coates got their points and rebounds, but it was a struggle) and forced USC’s guards to shoot the Gamecocks back into the game. Harris, who played well as a distributor, was 3-for-11 (1-of-8 3-pointers) for seven points. Gray was 3-of-7 for seven points. Kaela Davis was 1-of-10 for three points. Cuevas-Moore scored 11, hitting two late 3-pointers.

Gray (four), Davis (five) and Cuevas-Moore (two) also couldn’t keep their hands on the ball (to be fair, Coates had three turnovers). UConn flexed its mighty muscle to win the pageant and USC went back to training for the big day.

“It’s not like we didn’t know they were coming with their choke defense,” Dawn Staley said. “We made lazy passes and they made us pay for them.”

What’s frustrating is that Staley has figured out the most importance piece of her lineup. Harris is the point guard. Staley made that switch before conference play and it’s worked, the freshman playing beyond her years in being what Staley needs on the floor.

She strengthened that Monday, telling us that she’s given Harris the keys to the car. It’s her show. She just has to be the leader, meaning that not only does she control the offense, she has to jump some butts when her teammates aren’t playing well.

I don’t know if Harris getting up in a grill or two would have helped Monday. Making shots was what needed to happen and the guards didn’t make nearly enough. When Davis is on, she’s on but when she’s not, she begins trying to shoot her way out of the slump, leading to badly-placed shots and greater opponent opportunity.

“I told them that UConn probably looks at what people’s shooting percentages are and they make those people beat you,” Staley said. “For us, we had too many empty possessions where we got great looks but we just didn’t come up with them.”

Gray can be a takeover player, but she has to be forced into it. She’s content to let the bigs and other guards do their thing, and plays like an emergency option – “I’m here if you need me.” The Gamecocks need her to be that explosive, drive-the-lane player for 40 minutes every game, not just some of the time some of the time.

USC is still in great position, and I really don’t get all of the USC fans questioning the gameplan or Staley’s ability to “win the big one.” It’s UConn. It’s not like they only beat Trident Tech the last 100 games. The Gamecocks are an elite program, and they’re one of a handful of elite programs.

UConn is better than that.

USC will return home as the top SEC contender, aiming for its fourth straight regular-season championship and a No. 1 seed in the tournament (and it had better be in the Lexington regional). The silver lining in all this is that if and when UConn ever loses, the Huskies won’t lose to the same opponent in the same year again. Given their druthers, I’m sure the Gamecocks would take a win in March or April.

Staley wanted the win in February just in case that other one doesn’t happen. Then again, if it doesn’t happen, USC knows it can beat anybody else.

As long as the guards show up.

Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState