The height and size No. 4 Baylor women’s basketball will bring to Colonial Life Arena on Sunday night would be enough to make any team nervous. For a No. 18 South Carolina squad that’s spent the early part of the season relying heavily on its guards, it has the potential to be overwhelming.
Baylor leads the nation in both field goal percentage and rebounding rate, per Her Hoop Stats. The undefeated Lady Bears are also fifth in defensive rebounding rate and 22nd in offensive rebounding rate.
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley admitted that those stats can be intimidating.
“If you look at it too much, it’ll scare you into not showing up, but you gotta play the game, and you gotta play the game in Colonial Life Arena, so that’s a little bit of an edge I give us,” Staley said.
Another edge South Carolina might have is at the free throw line. Baylor is shooting 56.1 percent from the field, nearly three points higher than second-ranked UConn and higher than any team has averaged in a decade, but the Lady Bears are currently hitting just 56 percent of their free throws. That mark ranks 331st in the country and makes Baylor the only team in the country to shoot worse from the free throw line than it does from the field.
“Don’t see it very often, don’t see it as often as what they shoot from the field. Only the really good teams shoot that percentage,” Staley noted.
But don’t expect the Gamecocks to come out Friday and deliberately foul Baylor to send them to the free throw line as much as possible, a strategy often called “Hack-a-Shaq” after the NBA’s Shaquille O’Neal.
“I don’t think we’ll Shaq-attack it and foul and put them on the free throw line, but we certainly are aware of their rebounding percentage, their field goal percentage,” Staley said.
That unusual balance between field goal and free throw percentages reminded Staley of some her own USC teams from just a few years ago, when forwards Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson dominated the offense and were less than automatic from the charity stripe.
“They are probably more like us three, four years ago when we had two bigs, one agile, one who is mainly in the low post,” Staley said.
The closest Carolina ever got under Staley to having those two percentages equal each other was in 2014-2015, when the Gamecocks hit 48.4 percent of their shots from the floor and 67.4 percent of their free throws. That season ended with a Final Four run, but in each of the three losses from that year, USC shot 50 percent or worse from the free throw line.
What that means for Sunday’s game isn’t clear, but even if Staley does not choose to deliberately foul Baylor’s bigs, she still could encourage her players to play especially aggressive defense without fear of sending the Lady Bears to the line.
But all of that won’t matter if Baylor’s frontcourt, led by All-American candidates Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox, grabs every rebound available. And that’s a challenge that will fall mainly on redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings, one that she is looking forward to.
“It’ll be a big challenge, but it’s nothing we can’t handle,” Jennings said. “The game plan is in, and we did a great job of executing that (in practice). I think we just need to speed them up a little bit. We’re more versatile.”
The interior won’t be Jennings’ responsibility alone, however. Staley made it clear that packing the paint with lots of defenders will be prioritized.
“There are things you give up against this team. They way that they command the paint, most teams give up outside shooting, and we’ll probably do the same,” Staley said.