No. 5 South Carolina on Sunday will have a shot at revenge against one of the few nonconference opponents to get the best of them in the past few years, No. 14 Duke.
In order to accomplish that, the Gamecocks (7-1) must overcome a shorthanded roster that has had its defensive struggles in the very areas where the Blue Devils (6-1) excel offensively.
USC head coach Dawn Staley announced Friday that senior guards Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Lindsey Spann will not play against Duke, both due to sprained knees. Spann leads the Gamecocks in 3-point field goals this season, while Cuevas-Moore led the team in 3-point percentage last season.
Without the pair against Western Carolina on Thursday, South Carolina had just nine healthy available players and four guards, and 85 of its 100 points either came in the paint or off free throws as the Gamecocks pounded the ball inside. Looking ahead to Duke, which usually plays three guards at a time, Staley will likely be forced to use lineups with three post players, resulting in mismatches on both sides of the floor.
“We’ve got to pull out all the stops,” Staley said. “We’re just a guard or two down, so we gotta play our big lineup at some point. But we’ve been playing that lineup all year long, so it won’t be any different than what we put out there before. It’s just Duke is a very good team, and when you put that big lineup out there, one (forward) has to play a guard, a very good guard. So it’s going to happen, but I believe they’re up to the challenge.”
Leading the way for the Blue Devils, redshirt senior guards Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell are both all-ACC players who hit more than 40 percent of their shots from 3-point territory. Given South Carolina’s lack of depth at the guard position, it seems likely Brown and Greenwell will attack starters like Tyasha Harris in hopes of getting her into foul trouble early, an issue Staley highlighter after her team’s loss to Notre Dame a week ago.
“You have to be smart,” Staley said of that possibility. “Once you get one ... in the early part of the game, you can’t just play as if you don’t have any. You have to be really selective in which plays you want to be around. (Harris) is pretty competitive, so she wants to stay in every play and contest every shot, and she just puts herself in the position where you’re letting the officials decide it, and we don’t ever want to put it in their hands.”
On the opposite side of the court, however, senior A’ja Wilson, redshirt junior Alexis Jennings and sophomore Mikiah Herbert Harrigan will likely get opportunities of their own against undersized defenders. Staley said she does not believe the Blue Devils will try to swarm the paint and force South Carolina to beat them with outside shooting, despite the fact that Wilson has been especially dominant as of late, scoring 20 points or more four times this season.
“Duke hasn’t really collapsed on anybody. They’re going to be who they are and try to turn us over,” Staley said. “For us, we just got to execute. For us, I think the most important things are transition defense and rebounding.”
And even if Duke does attempt to double-team and frustrate Wilson in the post, the 6-foot-5 forward said she’s used to it.
“I feel like we’ve been seeing that all season long with me,” Wilson said. “That’s what teams are going to be like this year. I think we’re figuring out ways to make it easier on me and my teammates, and just showing that it’s not just me out there on the court that they have to guard ... it’s going to be a challenge, it’s going to be a battle, but at the same time, I feel like we have all the pieces we need to get this win.”
South Carolina faces Duke on Sunday at Colonial Life Arena. Tipoff is scheduled for noon.
Gamecock Fan Essentials
Who: No. 5 South Carolina (7-1) vs. No. 14 Duke (6-1)
When: Sunday, Noon
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, South Carolina
Watch: SEC Network
Listen: 107.5-FM in the Columbia area
History: South Carolina is 3-2 all time against the Blue Devils, most recently losing last season in Cameron Indoor Stadium, 74-63. This will be the fourth straight year the Gamecocks and Duke have faced off.
Key storyline: Duke’s two all-conference guards, Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell, shoot an otherworldly 49.3 percent from 3-point territory, and the Blue Devils rank eighth in the country from beyond the arc. South Carolina, meanwhile, is running with just four healthy available guards and ranks 284th in the NCAA in 3-point defense. That’s a dangerous combination.