In its last game before Christmas, South Carolina gave Dawn Staley some early presents — an easy win and lots and lots of 3-pointers.
With a season-best night from 3-point range, the Gamecocks cruised by Staley’s former team, Temple, for an 88-60 win at Colonial Life Arena.
USC (7-4) connected on 15 3-pointers, just two shy of the program record and one off the highest mark under Staley. Nine came in the third quarter, when Carolina exploded for a 27-6 run that buried the Owls for good.
“Our 3 percentage has clearly not been where it needs to be for us, so when it’s falling, we’re all just happy for each other, and it just keeps flowing the energy, it spreads,” redshirt junior guard Te’a Cooper said.
Early on, Temple (3-7) looked capable of hanging around, largely thanks to its rebounding edge — the Owls were up 7-1 on the boards in the first few minutes and used that to tally eight second-chance points.
In the latter half of the quarter, however, the Gamecocks went on a 12-3 run to take a double-digit lead, fueled by better rebounding that led to a breakneck pace up and down the floor, along with a 5-for-7 mark from beyond the arc.
Into the second quarter, Temple recovered its shooting touch with the help of several friendly bounces to go 47 percent from the field. South Carolina, meanwhile, continued to fire away from beyond the arc, but several ambitious looks failed to fall, allowing Temple to outscore USC in the period, 20-19.
Redshirt senior guard Doniyah Cliney prevented the score from getting too close, however. After not playing at all in the first quarter, she was ruthlessly efficient to close the first half, going 3-for-3 from the field and 2-for-2 from the free throw line to account for nine of the final 16 points scored in the period.
“It really doesn’t matter who starts. We just see how it goes, and if it doesn’t go as planned in the first five minutes, (Staley) will keep changing it. I’m always ready to go, so it doesn’t matter,” Cliney said. She had started the previous 45 games she played in before coming off the bench the last two.
After the break, South Carolina embarked on its epic run, and Temple shot just 2-for-17 in the third quarter, to turn the contest into a stress-free stroll for the 11,297 in attendance. Staley and her coaching staff contributed to the festive atmosphere by all sporting ugly Christmas sweaters.
The lone worry on the night came from redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings, who started and played the first six minutes of the game but came out after the first media timeout and never came back. Staley said that move was precautionary, though.
“Alexis had some kind of lower muscle strain in one of her legs, and I just felt like she wasn’t moving around as much as I would have liked, and I just didn’t want to push it and give her another day to relax and rest it,” Staley said.
Star of the game: Te’a Cooper was uncharacteristically quiet in last Sunday’s double-overtime thriller vs. Purdue, posting just two points in 18 minutes. She topped that in less than four minutes Friday, and continued to lead a potent attack with 16 points on just eight field goal attempts.
“We can’t accept anything less than somebody’s best effort, somebody’s killer mentality like Te’a. When she brings that, we’re a different basketball team,” Staley said. “When she wants to blend in and play average, we gotta find someone else. ... When you have a player with Te’a’s ability, her instincts, her aggressiveness, when she doesn’t have that, we can get somebody else and put them in and let them just move the ball around and be another player out there.
“But when you have someone as dynamic as (Cooper), she has to bring that every single night.
Stat of the game: Nine players accounted for the 15 3-pointers. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks have made 14 or more 3s twice under Dawn Staley. They’ve done it twice so far this year.
“No team is going to able to shoot the ball at that rate (all season),” Staley said. “But if we can hit two-thirds of that, I think it puts in a position to win a lot of basketball games.”
On the flip side, USC has also made less than five 3s in five games.
Play of the game: Early in the third quarter, junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan drained a 3 after the defense sagged off her, daring her to shoot. It was that kind of night where everything was working for USC, and it started an 18-1 run.
“I thought they sagged on some of us early, but we had such great ball movement that we were taking shots in the flow. Later on, they started coming out, at least outside the 15-foot mark, because we were knocking them down and they had to respect (that),” Staley said.
South Carolina breaks for the Christmas holiday and returns to play Dec. 30 against Furman at Colonial Life Arena, the final game before conference play begins.