These are the backups?
LSU would hate to see the third string.
With its starters leaving their games in the locker room on Saturday, South Carolina’s bench sent the Gamecocks past the Tigers 74-54 and into their first SEC tournament championship game. USC (29-2) will play Tennessee (27-4) at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday with a trophy-sized chip on their shoulders.
A loss at Kentucky cost the Gamecocks an undisputed regular-season championship and forced them to share it with the Lady Vols, despite beating Tennessee 71-66 on Feb. 23. Sunday’s winner won’t have to split anything – it will hold the trophy and a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
USC, which played one of its most passionate stretches of the season after 15 minutes of some of the worst basketball since Dawn Staley took over, hopes to keep that emotion and drive intact. With the bench out-pacing the starting five on Saturday, Staley feels that the Gamecocks have become extremely hard to scout.
“Our 10th key to winning, each and every game, is our bench production,” Staley said. “I do believe we have the best bench in the country.”
LSU (17-13) will swear to it.
“You’ve got to make sure your intensity and your level of effort is there for 40 minutes, because they can bring waves and waves of people in,” coach Nikki Caldwell said.
In the first 15 minutes, the Tigers did whatever they wanted. DaShawn Harden was canning 3-pointers (five in the first half) and LSU’s zone defense completely disrupted the Gamecocks’ offense. Built on trying to find the big girls inside, Elem Ibiam and Aleighsa Welch had no room.
USC turnovers escalated with LSU’s lead, and when the Gamecocks’ most oft-fired weapon – two-time SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell – started 0-for-4 with two fouls and two turnovers, the game looked bleak. Thoughts of another outstanding season fizzling into a postseason lapse began circulating – until Staley said stop.
This team was too good to play like this. And she wasn’t going to keep players that weren’t getting it done on the floor. The Gamecocks’ bench meant that nobody’s spot was guaranteed, so she began using it.
A 10-5 spurt cut LSU’s lead to four at halftime, and Staley switched her second-half lineup. Tina Roy, a backup point guard and 3-point specialist, and Olivia Gaines, USC’s defensive maestro, started alongside Mitchell, Welch and Ibiam. The gameplan was simple – play. Quit pressing, quit hanging your head, and play basketball.
The Tigers didn’t know what hit them.
Gaines, not known for offense, drained a long jumper 17 seconds into the period. The defense denied Harden open looks and clogged the lane, taking away the drive-and-dish specialties of star guard Danielle Ballard. The Gamecocks began getting the ball inside, as Alaina Coates began scoring nearly at will, helped by Welch’s offensive rebounding. Roy, who hit her first 3-point attempt but missed the next four, drained a second from long range to make it 35-34 LSU.
On their heels, the Tigers got the ball to Harden, who launched another 3. It missed, but Sheila Boykin rebounded and passed to Anne Pedersen.
Gaines swiped it and sped downcourt, defenders in her hip pocket. The diminutive guard converted a reverse layup for USC’s first lead, and while Raigyne Moncrief hit one free throw to tie the game at 36, the Tigers were gasping. Roy swished another 3, USC’s inside game bulldozed LSU’s posts and the Gamecocks floored the pedal.
“Like coach says, always be ready in that moment,” said Gaines, who only scored four points but knocked the Tigers’ offense silly. “I just brought the energy.”
Harden scored two points after her 17-point first-half outburst. Ballard only had eight. USC crushed the Tigers’ zone with a 78.3 percent shooting performance in the second, Coates scoring 16 while Roy added 15 and Welch had 11.
“Whenever you make a run, you have all this energy, you’re ready to go,” Coates said. “Being out there, I just felt a rush. I had a lot of fun out there.”
USC seemed disappointed that it had to stop playing, but it will return to the court on Sunday trying to make history. The Gamecocks are confident that they can complete the trip with a championship – if they can win by 20 with their most talented player having her worst game, they can handle anything.
Even a 17-time SEC tournament champion that will be surrounded by its loyal orange-clad fans.
“We’re looking forward to it being a competitive championship,” Staley said. “If (we) shoot like they did in the second half, I like our chances.”
Boykin 1-3 0-0 2, Pedersen 0-2 0-0 0, Moncrief 8-17 4-6 20, Harden 7-13 0-0 19, Ballard 2-10 4-6 8, Deemer 1-1 0-0 3, Bethel 1-4 0-0 2, Hill 0-1 0-2 0, Jones 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-52 8-14 54.
SOUTH CAROLINA (29-2)
Welch 4-9 3-5 11, Ibiam 2-2 5-6 9, Sessions 1-2 0-0 2, Mitchell 1-6 2-2 4, Dozier 1-2 0-0 2, Cuevas 2-3 0-0 4, Gaines 2-4 0-0 4, Wilson 3-4 1-3 7, Roy 5-11 0-0 15, White 0-0 0-0 0, Coates 8-11 0-0 16. Totals 29-54 11-16 74.
Halftime_LSU 31-27. 3-Point Goals_LSU 6-12 (Harden 5-8, Deemer 1-1, Pedersen 0-1, Ballard 0-2), South Carolina 5-16 (Roy 5-10, Cuevas 0-1, Dozier 0-1, Mitchell 0-4). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_LSU 25 (Boykin 6), South Carolina 36 (Welch 10). Assists_LSU 13 (Ballard 5), South Carolina 21 (Gaines, Roy 4). Total Fouls_LSU 17, South Carolina 11.