Four years of one way had to be re-tooled in an instant.
Dawn Staley signed 6-foot-4 prep All-American Alaina Coates because she knew she needed a big girl. Such was the result of advancing to the 2012 Sweet 16 and watching Stanford’s 6-foot-2 Nnemkadi Ogwumike turn South Carolina inside-out with 39 points.
Staley got Coates, got the 6-5 A’ja Wilson a year later and the plan was simple. On offense, throw it to big girl. That’s always the first option, and probably the second.
It was the plan on Feb. 19 at Missouri, but Coates twisted her ankle and was knocked out of effectiveness. The Gamecocks lost 62-60 and Staley had a problem – Coates was out, her offensive plan was toast and USC suddenly looked vulnerable.
Staley is in her position to solve problems.
Her solution just won the national championship.
The Gamecocks’ “speed” lineup of four guards around Wilson was intact the last seven games and eight of the final 11. Junior Bianca Cuevas-Moore, benched in favor of freshman Ty Harris at one point, was re-added to the lineup with Harris, Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis and Wilson. USC, even without Coates, looked more powerful.
The defense added fangs. Cuevas-Moore and Harris on the perimeter were able to knock any ball-handlers out of their rhythm. Gray and Davis could defend and shoot while Wilson could be Wilson, despite not having her high-low partner in the post.
That lineup took the floor at Texas A&M and blew away the Aggies 80-64, something that almost never happens at Reed Arena. USC got Coates back for a 95-87 win against Kentucky but Mikiah Herbert Harrigan joined Gray, Davis, Harris and Wilson for the first two games of the SEC tournament.
Coates re-injured her ankle then, an injury that would knock her out for the season, and Staley went to “speed” once more. Cuevas-Moore responded with seven brilliant games, including two against Mississippi State for the SEC tournament and national championships, and topped it with a flourish.
MSU’s Morgan William had been the player of the tournament after becoming the Bulldogs’ lead scorer in late March, and hit the shot that defeated Goliath against UConn. With Cuevas-Moore on her from tipoff Sunday, William was so flustered that coach Vic Schaefer yanked her, sitting her the entire fourth quarter. Taken out of their comfort, MSU made it a game but didn’t have enough to match USC’s multitude of scorers.
The Gamecocks talked about overcoming adversity all year. They did it and won their first national championship.
Staley, who sees so much of herself in Cuevas-Moore, credited the junior for never giving up. She could have pouted away the season after Harris took her spot.
Instead, she shined the brightest in the biggest moment.
“I knew she was going to impact the game in this way from the moment we knew we would play Mississippi State,” Staley said. “A lot of times, when a player’s that confident, you don’t know if they’re going to be able to deliver. But I knew deep down Bianca was going to come through for us, and she did just that.”
Little replaced big, and won a big prize.
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The speed lineup
A look at the Gamecocks’ “speed” lineup, which consisted of four guards around A’ja Wilson:
11 in a row
After losing to Missouri on Feb. 19, USC had to go with its “speed lineup” because of the injury to center Alaina Coates. The Gamecocks never lost again. The run:
USC 80, Texas A&M 64
USC 95, Kentucky 87
USC 72, Georgia 48
USC 89, Kentucky 77
USC 59, Miss. State 49
USC 90, UNC-Asheville 40
USC 71, Arizona State 68
USC 100, Quinnipiac 58
USC 71, Florida State 64
USC 62, Stanford 53
USC 67, Miss. State 55