For a half hour, South Carolina did just about everything right in a raucous road environment playing one of the most established programs in the country.
The Gamecocks outrebounded a No. 15 Maryland team famed for its ability to win on the boards. A’ja Wilson was almost impossible to stop down low. And the score was a lopsided 73-54 in favor of USC after three quarters of play.
Then, they nearly gave it all back.
In a tense, thrilling fourth quarter, the Terrapins furiously rallied, closing the gap to three points and raising the possibility of a shocking upset in a game many seemed to regard as over by halftime.
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But A’ja Wilson responded with a career-high 32 points, Tyasha Harris contributed a career-best in points and assists, and the Gamecocks (2-0) survived, claiming their first ranked win of the season despite the damage to their supporters’ collective blood pressure.
“We’re going to break (the game) down,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “There were some very good things that happened in this game and some things we need to improve on. I thought we got a little fatigued and started shooting the ball too quickly, allowing them to get the ball back and play fast and downhill, like they like to play. They controlled the tempo ... in the fourth quarter.”
For the better part of three quarters, it was South Carolina who was controlling the pace of play, especially in a dominant first frame in which the Gamecocks outscored Maryland 29-13. And much of that dominance started in the frontcourt, where Wilson, Alexis Jennings and the rest of the USC reserves outrebounded Maryland 33-17 through the first 30 minutes.
Midway through the third quarter, Jennings already had a double-double, and she finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Wilson also recorded a double-double with 32 points and 12 rebounds. Overall, the Terrapins managed to close the rebounding gap but still came out behind South Carolina, 41-36.
“I just thought that our kids came in with the mindset of making sure we don’t get outrebounded and they’re a pretty good rebounding team, notoriously,” Staley said of Maryland, who has ranked in the top 10 nationally for rebounding margin for eight straight seasons. “I’m happy in that regard that we won (the rebounding battle), but we’ve got a lot of things that we can show as far as us not boxing out, us getting beat to the ball, and them wanting it more in certain senses.”
But the final 10 minutes of the game were all Maryland, who kept up a relentless pace and forced USC on its heels. Over the course of roughly six minutes, the Terps went on a 24-7 run to virtually erase South Carolina’s large lead and force Staley to call two timeouts in the final 30 seconds. The Gamecocks did not make anything easier on themselves by posting a 26.7 field goal percentage and missing seven free throws in the fourth quarter.
“Throughout it all, you have to stay disciplined. You have to stay in character,” Staley said. “I told them ... at halftime that we’re going to be fatigued, physically you’re going to get tired, and that’s when mentally it kicks in ... so we gotta stick to the game plan and play conservatively when we needed to play conservatively.”
Ultimately, it was Harris who kept the upset at bay. She scored the team’s final seven points and was a perfect 5-for-5 from the free throw line.
“We got a great point guard. She’s just a sophomore,” Staley said of Harris. “She came up with big free throws and she was the one who stepped up to the line and secured the game for us.”
Wilson and Harris’ career performances accounted for 55 percent of South Carolina’s offense. In particular, Wilson did so on efficient 10-for-19 shooting, mixing in a few jumpers to go with a bruising game inside that allowed her to get to the free throw line a game-high 18 times.
“You gotta take what the game gives you, and at that time that’s what the game gave me,” Wilson said. “Like coach says, you go until the cows come home, and I don’t think the cows came home.”
The Gamecocks return to their home state Thursday for an away matchup against rival Clemson.
SOUTH CAROLINA (2-0)
Jennings 5-8 2-2 12, Wilson 10-19 12-18 32, Cliney 2-8 1-4 6, Harris 5-14 7-7 20, Spann 5-9 2-2 15, Herbert Harrigan 2-3 0-0 4, Grissett 0-1 0-0 0, Jackson 2-5 0-0 5, Patrick 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 31-67 24-33 94.
Jones 3-4 2-2 8, Charles 8-16 14-15 31, Confroy 1-4 4-4 7, Lewis 3-5 0-0 7, Watson 5-12 0-0 14, Fraser 2-9 3-6 7, Myers 1-4 2-2 4, Small 4-9 0-0 8, Totals 27-63 25-29 86.
3-Point Goals_South Carolina 8-22 (Jennings 0-1, Cliney 1-5, Harris 3-6, Spann 3-7, Jackson 1-3), Maryland 7-18 (Charles 1-2, Confroy 1-2, Lewis 1-2, Watson 4-10, Myers 0-1, Small 0-1). Assists_South Carolina 19 (Harris 9), Maryland 15 (Myers 6). Fouled Out_South Carolina Herbert Harrigan, Maryland Jones, Fraser, Small. Rebounds_South Carolina 41 (Jennings 13), Maryland 36 (Charles 10). Total Fouls_South Carolina 19, Maryland 29. A_8,677.