South Carolina held off a rally from scrappy No. 15 Maryland in the Terrapins’ home gym Monday night, emerging with a 94-86 win that almost slipped away.
The victory marked the first win in Gamecocks program history over Maryland and the second ever matchup between the two teams. Given how early it is in the season and the highly-ranked status of the squads, both coaches involved said they thought the game would end up being a learning experience for their younger players as they make their way through the season.
For the fans, meanwhile, there is also a lot that can be gleaned from the matchup.
Tyasha Harris may be this team’s closer
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A lot of the postgame focus was justifiably on A’ja Wilson, who set a career high in points and thoroughly dominated Maryland on both ends of the floor, collected 12 rebounds, four blocks and three assists.
But it wasn’t Wilson who put the game away just as Maryland drew within one possession. It was Tyasha Harris, and that’s something coach Dawn Staley didn’t forget, praising Harris’s composure and reliability.
All told, Harris scored South Carolina’s last seven points, including an acrobatic layup while drawing a foul and a perfect 5-for-5 mark on free throws. And that was the finishing flourish on an excellent second half in which she scored 17 of her 20 points and recorded two of her three steals.
There’s no denying that Wilson is the best player the Gamecocks have. But Harris’s ability to push the pace, her consistency from the free throw line and her range as a scorer probably make her the player Staley is going to give the ball to most in tight end-of-game situations.
Free throws are a weak spot
Related to the point above, Harris was great from the free throw line at Maryland, but USC was weak as a team, especially in the fourth quarter as the Terrapins rallied. The Gamecocks finished the game with a 72.7 percent mark from the charity stripe, which is better than their percentage from all of last season, but they also went 12-for-19 in the final 10 minutes.
In particular, Wilson may have set a career high in points, but she still left six extra points on the table with 12-of-18 free throw shooting, including three misses in the final two minutes. Doniyah Cliney also struggled, going 1-for-4.
South Carolina is unlikely to be in too many close games throughout this season, but when the Gamecocks are, they need to be better from the free throw line. As Harris showed, it can be the difference between winning and losing, and Wilson is simply too valuable a player who gets to the free throw line too often to be a liability there, especially as she tries to expand her game.
A’ja sets a career high in points, thanks to her teammates
No, we’re not talking about them passing to her.
For about the first five minutes of the game Monday night, the idea of A’ja setting a career high in points seemed silly — Maryland was playing a zone defense that collapsed in with a double team any time Wilson touched the ball.
But then something happened: South Carolina’s other players forced Maryland to respect them. Ty Harris, Lindsey Spann and Doniyah Cliney all hit three pointers. Alexis Jennings made the double teams pay with three offensive rebounds in six minutes. And suddenly the double teams appeared to dramatically decrease.
Look, there’s no doubt that Wilson is supremely talented player, a “woman among girls,” as Maryland coach Brenda Frese called her. But it’s also fair to say her historic scoring night was boosted by her teammates who forced the defense to adjust and open up the middle for Wilson. As Wilson herself said, “you gotta take what the game gives you,” and in this particular case, the game gave Wilson looks in the post as Maryland’s defenders attempted to track Wilson’s teammates around the perimeter, or in Jennings’s case, across the lane.
Alexis Jennings impresses, but her minutes are limited
Given how the impressive, career-high stats Wilson and Harris put up, it might be easy to forget how well the other member of South Carolina’s frontcourt played. Alexis Jennings played the fewest minutes of any USC starter, but when she was on the court, her impact was almost uniformly positive for the Gamecocks.
Let’s run down her stats: 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, 13 rebounds, two steals, one block, one personal foul and no turnovers. Oh, and she made both free throws she attempted. By midway through the third quarter, she already had a double-double, her first with the Gamecocks, before even Wilson.
That is an extremely clean game, especially when compared to her replacements, Lele Grissett and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who had seven fouls, four points, three rebounds and one block in just nine fewer minutes than Jennings.
Most of Jennings’s offensive production came in the first half, but she was still a solid rebounder and defensive presence in the latter portion of the game, and she effectively freed up room for A’ja Wilson to operate.
The only question is why Dawn Staley chose to limit her minutes. Jennings did get hit in the back of the head at one point earlier on in the game, but she came back later and seemed fine from a physical standpoint. However, if she continues to play like she did Monday, it will be surprising if Staley does not keep her on the court longer.