David Cloninger

Cloninger: Sunglasses removed after win over Wildcats

A’ja Wilson shot South Carolina past Kentucky on Thursday.
A’ja Wilson shot South Carolina past Kentucky on Thursday. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

So much for not playing their best.

Second-ranked South Carolina came into the game undefeated but the first 15 games had some head-scratchers. Yes, they’d won ’em all – but when were they going to turn it loose, start carving up opponents they way they had during last year’s 34-3 magnificence?

I realize how ridiculous it is to judge a team by how much it’s winning or by how good it looks while winning, instead of simply winning. But that’s the price of becoming elite – you’re judged by your past as much as you are your present (see Tennessee women’s basketball, 2009-present).

The Gamecocks didn’t mind the comparisons. They knew they had it in them.

And Kentucky now knows it, too.

The Wildcats had that game. They were doing pretty much whatever they wanted. That’s what made the first half so frustrating – Kentucky didn’t unveil any new game plan or some dynamic player that missed the first half of the season. It was the same thing they always do.

USC scouted and prepared and watched film and still looked like it got called up from the JV that morning. Couldn’t finish an inside shot with contact. Couldn’t get back on defense. Couldn’t guard players a head shorter.

Until they reached the breaking point and said, "No more."

I believe there is some giant switch controlling the lights of ancient Memorial Coliseum, and it was like Dawn Staley kicked it upright. The Gamecocks were Mack trucks driving through a freeway of mopeds the way they staked out the lane, and began finding their greatest weapon, who was as adept at stopping Kentucky’s offense as she was triggering USC’s.

A’ja Wilson ripped the upset from the Wildcats’ paws and kept the Gamecocks perfect, sending the message to everyone that had doubted – See? We’re Gonna Be OK. In a gym where they never win, against an opponent they don’t particularly care for and in a situation where the barbs were about to fly with a loss, USC became the dominant team it’s been, but we were all too blind to see just how good it was despite the 15 previous wins.

A colleague bet me a beverage in Jacksonville the Gamecocks run the SEC table. I know how hard it is to do so, yet shook on it.

I’ll set aside a few bucks.

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