South Carolina knew this would be the biggest test of its nonconference season.
The Gamecocks passed, but finished short of a top mark.
Tenth-ranked USC dropped its first game of the season on Wednesday at the Carolinas Women’s College Challenge, 74-66 to No. 14 North Carolina. Trailing by 13 in the second half, the Gamecocks (9-1) fought to make it a two-point game, but never found that one stop that could have meant a tie or a chance at taking the lead.
“It’s good learning for our young basketball team,” coach Dawn Staley said. “Of course they’re disappointed that we didn’t win this game, but we’ve got a lot of fight left in us, we’ve got a lot of basketball left in us. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s one you want to get.”
Their guards taken out by UNC’s aggressive perimeter defense, USC was down 13 as the Tar Heels (10-2) always had one more shot in the bag. Acrobatic and bullish with equal aplomb, UNC twisted USC’s defense into sculptures as it dictated the game.
But the Gamecocks, who had won their closest game by 15 points, refused to take it. After Aleighsa Welch scored more of her career-high 23 points, Tiffany Mitchell stole an inbound pass and laid it up to make it a two-point game.
After a timeout, though, UNC returned to what it was doing. A 3-pointer from Columbia native Xylina McDaniel stretched the advantage, and even as USC began to correct its flaws from the free-throw line, the Tar Heels began mixing and matching. If the Gamecocks pushed them out, they hit the driving McDaniel or the planted Stephanie Mavunga, who led the Tar Heels with 20 points. If they contained the two posts, guard Diamond DeShields unveiled more of her mid-air floating grace to flip balls off the glass and through the net.
USC’s defense couldn’t stop the attack, and once it began missing free throws, the game slipped away. The Gamecocks realized that there’s a lot to work on if they’re going to get back, and prove they’re worthy of, a No. 10 national ranking.
“We knew they could score,” said Welch, who combined with center Elem Ibiam to score 21 of USC’s first 27 points. “It was just a matter of us having to get defensive stops. We dug ourselves into a hole.”
USC was hounded into playing UNC’s game, and didn’t take advantage when McDaniel and DeShields were each forced to the bench with two early fouls. In fact, the Tar Heels took their first lead shortly after that, collecting second-chance points and continuing to take USC’s perimeter out of the game.
The Gamecocks got back in it with 30 points off 17 UNC turnovers. Led by Mitchell, who finished with 18 points, they nearly came all the way back. Ten missed opportunities from the free-throw line, and UNC seemingly always finding another big bucket, prevented the win.
USC didn’t get production it has counted on from key players. Khadijah Sessions, in a return to her hometown, seemed to press the entire game, shooting 1-of-8 for four points. Center Alaina Coates was scoreless.
Staley liked how her team fought back, and knew that it won’t face many teams with UNC’s talent. It will face some, though, and all will come during the gauntlet of the SEC, which begins on Jan. 2.
“They just made plays,” Staley said. “They’ve got weapons all over the place. If they beat you on the inside, you make adjustments, they knock down 3s. Whatever adjustments we made, they made big shots to counter.”
Sessions left the game on Wednesday on crutches with her left ankle in a walking boot. Staley didn’t know the severity of the injury and said that Sessions will be re-evaluated in Columbia.
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NORTH CAROLINA (10-2)
Mavunga 9-16 2-3 20, McDaniel 5-11 2-2 14, Gray 4-8 2-2 12, DeShields 6-13 5-6 17, Washington 0-3 0-0 0, Coleman 0-3 1-2 1, Butts 1-1 0-0 2, Rountree 0-2 0-0 0, Bryant 1-1 2-2 4, Johnson 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 28-61 14-17 74.
SOUTH CAROLINA (9-1)
Welch 8-13 7-12 23, Dozier 1-3 1-2 3, Ibiam 7-10 0-0 14, Sessions 1-8 2-4 4, Mitchell 4-13 9-10 18, Gaines 1-2 0-0 2, Montout 0-1 0-0 0, Davis 0-1 0-0 0, Roy 1-5 0-1 2, Coates 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-56 19-29 66.
Halftime: North Carolina 39-27. 3-Point Goals: North Carolina 4-16 (McDaniel 2-4, Gray 2-4, Mavunga 0-1, Johnson 0-1, Coleman 0-1, Rountree 0-2, DeShields 0-3), South Carolina 1-11 (Mitchell 1-2, Montout 0-1, Dozier 0-2, Roy 0-3, Sessions 0-3). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: North Carolina 43 (Mavunga 12), South Carolina 33 (Welch 6). Assists: North Carolina 12 (Coleman 4), South Carolina 6 (Gaines 2). Total Fouls: North Carolina 23, South Carolina 18. Attendance: 4,137.