The shooting was hardly consistent for No. 12 South Carolina against Ole Miss on Thursday.
But any offensive trouble the Gamecocks had was smoothed over by the team’s ferocious defense, as USC eased by the lowly Rebels for a 76-42 win.
Carolina (17-5, 9-1 SEC) kicked off both halves at Colonial Life Arena with a cold touch on offense, missing its first five shots in the first half and six of eight to start the third quarter.
“We had no fluidity offensively (early),” coach Dawn Staley said. “We didn’t hit shots, open shots. I think we were just pressing a little bit too much; (but) when we just slowed the game down, defended and rebounded, the offensive flow came.”
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Mississippi wasn’t much better though — the Rebels failed to score in the game’s first 3:30 and then went more than five minutes to end the third quarter without a point.
South Carolina’s suffocating pressure played a key role; Staley’s squad turned Ole Miss over 23 times, the most of any SEC opponent this season.
“We really had to take pride in our defense,” freshman guard Destanni Henderson said. “The offense, it’ll come. The defense, we really had to just lock in and apply more effort and that’ll turn into offense.”
When the Rebels did get shots off, they struggled to connect, hitting just 31 percent on the night as the Gamecocks came up with six blocks.
On the other side of the floor, the Gamecocks made up for their lulls with several explosive stretches marked by balanced scoring. Five Gamecocks scored in double figures, and nine made it onto the scoresheet.
Late in the second quarter, an 8-0 spurt put the Gamecocks up a dozen before Ole Miss narrowed the deficit to 36-27 at halftime. In the third quarter, however, USC went on a 12-0 run to swell the lead to more than 20. That run carried into the final period, at one point reaching 32-4.
Senior Nelly Perry led the way with a team-high 13 points, the majority of which came off three made 3-pointers.
“It’s taken some time for her to feel comfortable, for us to feel comfortable in putting her out there for extended minutes, but slowly, now she’s hitting her stride,” Staley said of Perry. “We had a talk after Arkansas. I talked to her a little bit. I think she got some stuff out there on the table, I put some stuff out there on the table and she’s been much better since that meeting. More aggressive, communicating more out there on the floor, and I feel like when she gets out there, she makes something happen.”
As a team, the Gamecocks made eight 3s on the night, their most in five games. Junior guard Te’a Cooper didn’t make any of those long-distance shots, but she did start the scoring on the night with back-to-back buckets and went on to tally 11 for the game. Senior forward Alexis Jennings came up with 12 points to go along with a team-high six rebounds.
USC also once again got stellar production from the freshman duo of forward Victaria Saxton and guard Destanni Henderson. After the rookies tied for the team lead in points against Arkansas with 19 each, they had 12 apiece versus the Rebels. Henderson added five rebounds and five assists, and Saxton had three rebounds and a pair of blocks in just 12 minutes.
“What they haven’t done is they haven’t gotten too high with the highs and too low with the lows,” Staley said of her first-years. “They’ve maintained and they’ve waited until their numbers’ called. And they don’t know when, but every time we’ve called their number as of late, they’ve executed and they’ve given us a boost.”
Star of the game: Nelly Perry has sometimes gotten lost in the shuffle this season as an experienced grad transfer guard in a deep USC backcourt. But she was a steadying presence Thursday and posted a season best in scoring.
“I’ve had my days, but you just try to be mentally tough and whenever my number is called, stay ready,” Perry said, acknowledging the challenges of the season so far.
Stat of the game: USC’s 43 bench points were the team’s most in SEC play this year and emblematic of the team’s improving cohesion and depth.
“Even when you see a half like we played (in the first half), you see progression in our bench. ... Our bench is strengthening,” Staley said.
Play of the game: Late in the third quarter, in the span of 58 seconds, Herbert Harrigan came up with two impressive blocks on the defensive end that turned into back-to-back 3-pointers from Perry to cap a 12-0 run that put the Gamecocks’ lead over 20.
South Carolina takes a break from conference play to travel to Connecticut and face the No. 5 Huskies on Monday. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and tip at 7 p.m.