What it came down to was Aleighsa Welch got frustrated.
Frustrated at being on the bench. Frustrated at herself for picking up two fouls in the first seven minutes. Frustrated at not being there as her teammates struggled to stay ahead of stubborn Charlotte, which knew No. 12 South Carolina was not the same without Welch.
The feeling compressed into something cold and hard until Welch could do something about it at the beginning of the second half. The fire that lit the 49ers’ hopes of an upset was quickly snuffed out as Welch supplied every degree of heat in the building.
The Gamecocks’ junior forward scored all 18 of her points in the second half to lead USC to a 76-61 win against the 49ers on Sunday, keeping USC perfect as it heads into the exam break. The 49ers (4-5) challenged the Gamecocks more than any team this season, but once Welch took over, Charlotte was left with the other eight teams USC has played.
“It’s frustrating, to say the least,” Welch said. “It gave me even more motivation to come back strong in the second half.”
Clinging to a one-point lead at halftime after USC missed five straight shots 2 feet or closer to the basket, coach Dawn Staley told the Gamecocks to keep doing what they knew would work. Layups would fall eventually; USC just needed to keep shooting them — and also hit free throws and get the transition defense solidified.
Getting Welch back was the key. As the 49ers kept up their 50 percent shooting, Welch started demanding the ball.
Welch scored 10 points as USC feasted on missed 49ers shots, turning a 48-46 deficit into a 58-50 lead. Flashing to the basket, taking contact and still scoring, Welch supplied the finishing touch that bigs Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates had struggled with in the first half.
The 49ers, who had been patient and worked the Gamecocks to a slow pace with a mix of shooting and getting to the free-throw line, began to panic. Missed 3-pointers early in the shot clock gave Welch other opportunities, and she wasn’t going to turn them down.
“Once I saw one go in, I finally got a lot of confidence, because I wasn’t able to get my groove going in the first half,” Welch said. “I got a lot more aggressive, a lot more vocal with trying to get the ball.”
Her surge got the other Gamecocks cooking. Ibiam overcame a rash of missed layups to finish with 19 points, Tiffany Mitchell had 15 in a return to her hometown and Asia Dozier came off the bench to score 10. The 49ers, shooting well for most of the game, withered under Welch’s relentlessness and were 6-of-19 from the floor after losing the lead.
Staley got what she expected. Charlotte always plays USC tough. With Welch out of the picture, the first half nearly broke the Gamecocks.
But it didn’t.
“Our team held serve with having such a big piece of our team sitting on the bench,” Staley said. “Aleighsa, she’s our energy player. She’s the backbone. The way she responded and wanted to come and kind of put us on her back and will us to a win.”
USC ended with a comfortable win and went into a 10-day break for exams. Waiting after that is the biggest non-conference game on the schedule — No. 18 North Carolina in Myrtle Beach.
A test against Charlotte, even if it has to carry across the break, was good.
“Coach (Lisa) Boyer just talked about it — we needed this,” Welch said. “I don’t think we really needed to go into a game of that caliber winning by 20, winning by 20, winning by 20. They pushed us in areas we hadn’t really been pushed before.”
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SOUTH CAROLINA (9-0)
Welch 7-9 4-6 18, Ibiam 7-14 5-7 19, Sessions 2-8 2-2 6, Roy 0-0 1-2 1, Mitchell 4-9 7-7 15, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0, Montout 1-2 0-0 3, Davis 0-0 0-0 0, Morrison 0-0 2-4 2, Dozier 4-7 2-3 10, Coates 0-4 2-2 2. Totals 25-53 25-33 76.
Gordon 3-9 7-8 13, Alexander 2-5 0-0 4, Holmes 1-4 0-0 2, Hammonds 6-11 1-2 14, Sigmon 2-8 2-2 7, Gregory 1-1 0-0 3, Garner 0-1 0-0 0, Webster 1-2 0-0 2, Olley 2-3 0-0 4, Carter 4-5 0-0 8, Rankin 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 24-53 10-12 61.
Halftime: South Carolina 33-32. 3-Point Goals_South Carolina 1-6 (Montout 1-1, Dozier 0-1, Mitchell 0-2, Sessions 0-2), Charlotte 3-13 (Gregory 1-1, Hammonds 1-2, Sigmon 1-7, Webster 0-1, Holmes 0-2). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: South Carolina 36 (Ibiam 9), Charlotte 29 (Gordon 9). Assists: South Carolina 12 (Dozier, Mitchell 4), Charlotte 10 (Hammonds 4). Total Fouls: South Carolina 13, Charlotte 24. Attendance: 1,357.