To those outside South Carolina women’s basketball, the storyline is obvious, and enticing. Without A’ja Wilson, the Gamecocks aren’t the same team, and it showed Sunday as Dawn Staley’s group was blown out by then-No. 9 Maryland 85-61, dropping out of the AP’s top 10 for the first time in nearly five years in the process.
Even Maryland coach Brenda Frese made reference to Wilson in her postgame press conference.
“Obviously, I understand,” Frese said. “We’ve been through it in our program. You talk about losing a tremendous player like A’ja, it takes time for that next wave of players to be able to step up and accept that responsibility.”
And certain statistics from Sunday showed just how much Wilson’s absence has changed USC — the Gamecocks were outrebounded 53 to 29 and outscored in the paint 44 to 40, much to the displeasure of Staley.
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“Rebounding is not a skill at all, it is a decision,” Staley said. “And Maryland decided they were going to rebound the ball like they normally do, and they made us pay.”
But not having A’ja can’t account for everything, most glaringly the 1-for-21 mark Carolina posted from 3-point range. And for a team that Staley has touted as free-flowing, basket-attacking and guard-based on offense, the Gamecocks could get little penetration in their halfcourt sets and shot 35.6 percent, their lowest mark in nine games.
The lack of production from beyond the arc was particularly striking, and Staley made it clear after the game that without much post depth, the Gamecocks have little choice but to live and die by the 3-pointer, at least somewhat.
“We’re going to have to be a 3-point shooting team. We have to generate points from out there, especially because we got young post players that haven’t proven yet that they actually can score, other than (redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings),” Staley said.
Had the Gamecocks shot the 3 at the rate they had in their first two games (32.6 percent) they would have had an extra 15 to 18 points against Maryland — not enough to erase the final deficit of 24 points, but a total that would have certainly changed the tenor of the game.
The only Gamecock to make a 3-pointer Sunday was junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, and it was just the fourth of her career. Redshirt junior guard Te’a Cooper, who led the team in attempts and went 0-for-6 on the night, said the problem went deeper than just bad luck.
“I feel like we shoot better when we’re in the flow of things, and it wasn’t in the flow, it was shot clock running down, shoot it. It wasn’t really anticipated, nobody was expecting the shot,” Cooper said. “Once we start getting in the flow of it, we’ll be better with that shooting outside the arc.”
In terms of 3-pointers shot with just a few seconds left on shot clock, South Carolina actually only had two or three Sunday. But after Staley said at SEC media days that she anticipated most of the team’s 3-point looks coming in transition, the Gamecocks did take only six of their 21 3-pointers within the first 10 seconds of a possession, and none of them went in.
A quick release doesn’t necessarily mean the flow that Cooper was describing, but given the trouble USC has had with zone defenses against both Clemson and Maryland, shooting before the opposing team can get set has been key to the Gamecock offense so far. On Sunday, 24 of 61 points came within the first 10 seconds of a possession or on free throws from fouls in the time frame.
Moving forward, South Carolina could face an array of teams that can challenge it in different ways in the Vancouver Showcase tournament over Thanksgiving.
The opener against East Tennessee State should help the Gamecocks get their shooting touch back, as ETSU’s opponents are shooting above 35 percent from long range. But beyond that, Oregon State and Notre Dame, two top-10 teams in the field, have had very different results defending the 3 early in the year — the Beavers’ opponents are getting just 23 percent of their points on 3-pointers, while for Notre Dame that number is nearly 40.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 22 (First round)
5:30 p.m. OR 11:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23 (Second round)
2 p.m. OR 4:30 p.m. OR 8 p.m. OR 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24 (Final round)
Where: Vancouver, Canada
Field: No. 13 South Carolina (2-1), East Tennessee State (0-4), Gonzaga (4-0), Drake (4-0), Rutgers (4-0), Western Kentucky (0-4), No. 9 Oregon State (3-0), No. 1 Notre Dame (3-0)
TV: Streaming online at VanShowcase.com