David Cloninger

Cloninger: Gamecocks fall in same hole as ’16 tournament

South Carolina could be seeing another scene like at last year’s Sweet 16 if it can’t crack a zone defense.
South Carolina could be seeing another scene like at last year’s Sweet 16 if it can’t crack a zone defense. tglantz@thestate.com

Losing happens, and it’s not like Missouri’s a bad team. It’s also proof that nothing lasts forever, especially in sports – South Carolina’s kicked so much tail in the SEC the last four years that it was going to stop sometime.

What bothers me about the Gamecocks’ loss to the Tigers Sunday is how it was executed. Or how it wasn’t, rather. Last two possessions aside – and my goodness, were those poorly performed – I couldn’t believe USC, after nearly a year of living with giving away a Sweet 16 game to Syracuse, did the same exact thing it did against the Orange.

The Tigers dared USC to shoot, just as Syracuse did. The Gamecocks didn’t make nearly enough, just like they didn’t in Sioux Falls.

At least the last time, you saw why USC kept shooting. Tina Roy cheerfully accepted the dare and was peeling the Orange in the first half. It ran out in the second but the Gamecocks felt that it was always one shot away from returning.

At Missouri, it was off from the start. Yes, Alaina Coates was in foul trouble early, but the Gamecocks still had A’ja Wilson and Allisha Gray. It seems obvious – you have drivers. You can’t hit outside shots.

Drive. The. Lane.

I’ve seen Gray make those shots, but she has to be coaxed into taking over on the offensive end. Wilson’s always going to be Wilson. Kaela Davis was having an off night and nobody could hit a 3-pointer, so the answer was lit up brighter than a message board after a USC loss.

Drive. The. Lane.

Get to the rim. Get to the line. They can’t take charges every time – sometimes, you’re going to get the benefit of that call. Do it enough times, they’ll back down.

The Gamecocks’ veterans knew that from the Syracuse game, and from every other time they’ve faced a zone defense (which is every game). Anybody else on the floor could watch Sophie Cunningham do it to USC throughout the second half, after a first where the Gamecocks kept her in front.

Yet USC kept shooting from outside and turning the ball over. I get that the only way to break a shooting slump is to keep shooting, but it seems clear that if you want to break it quickly, take a higher-percentage shot.

Davis is in a bad slump, shooting 9-for-35 in her last three games with 12 turnovers. I found it admirable that she was going for the rim and the win on the Gamecocks’ next-to-last possession, but driving with 20 on the shot clock in a tie game, 36 seconds to play? That turnover was brutal.

Her struggles could have been overcome had Coates impacted when she was on the court. Being in foul trouble’s one thing, but Coates wasn’t challenging it. Dawn Staley mentioned it recently – Coates has to be the force that she is all the time. There was nobody on that court who could have stopped her one-on-one, yet she was standing around the paint instead of in it, not calling for the ball.

Pure talent counts for a lot in women’s basketball, and USC has more than its share. But a team also has to adjust in games where the talent isn’t overcoming, to take charge instead of waiting for it to happen. This is where a La’Keisha Sutton or Aleighsa Welch or Tiffany Mitchell would have spoken, putting a foot down and saying, “This is how it’s going to be on this next play/quarter/stretch.”

USC is still searching for that voice. Staley mentioned she wants Ty Harris to take over that role, since she’s the point guard. That’s difficult to do as a freshman. For some of the veterans, it’s hard to ask them to be something they haven’t been since they’ve been here – great players, yes, but not great vocal players.

USC is in fine position. The Gamecocks could even still win the SEC regular-season championship (they need help from Mississippi State losing, but all they have to do is tie. A champ is a champ, not a co-champ). Perhaps this was the kind of wake-up call the Gamecocks needed – losing to UConn hurt, but it was UConn.

It’s guaranteed that the next opponent, Texas A&M, will zone USC. In a place where the Gamecocks have never played well, they’ll need to remember what went wrong at Missouri, and in other locations, such as Sioux Falls.

When in doubt …

Drive. The. Lane.

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