South Carolina women’s basketball is headed back to the Sweet 16 for the sixth year in a row, and all it took was a back-and-forth, incredibly tense win over No. 5 seed Florida State on Sunday to do it.
The Gamecocks out-shot the Seminoles, had fewer turnovers and got to the free throw line twice as many times. But a large part of what kept the 82-74 contest so close was the offensive rebounding — FSU pulled down 27 offensive boards, the most of any Carolina opponent this season, and turned them into 19 second-chance points.
In the final moments, USC managed to secure some crucial defensive rebounds to clinch the victory. But all told, Florida State grabbed 54 percent of its own missed shots. (The nation’s leader in offensive rebounding rate, Mississippi State, averages 48.1 percent.)
“We live to see another day. We can watch film, we can break it down. And hopefully we can cut (the second-chance points and offensive rebounds) in half — because of who we could potentially play, that number could be very similar to that,” coach Dawn Staley said. “I’m happy we got a win, I’m happy we’re able to game plan and get ready to play in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.”
As Staley noted, the rebounding imbalance wasn’t enough to derail South Carolina in the second round, but things may only get tougher in the Sweet 16. When Staley was speaking Sunday, she wasn’t sure whether her team’s next opponent would be No. 8 seed California, which features the nation’s leading rebounder in Kristine Anigwe, or No. 1 seed Baylor, which boasts an All-American frontcourt of Kalani Brown (6-foot-7) and Lauren Cox (6-foot-4).
Baylor, which ranks fourth nationally in offensive rebounding rate at 42.4 percent, according to Her Hoop Stats, defeated California on Monday night, 102-63. The Lady Bears pulled down 19 offensive boards and turned them into 21 second-chance points. Cox and Brown combined for 18 points and 15 rebounds, below their season average, but held Anigwe without a double-double for the first time in 34 games.
When South Carolina and Baylor met earlier this year, Cox and Brown were solid, but it was BU’s guard play that really crushed the Gamecocks early, giving the Lady Bears an easy 94-69 win.
In some ways, Staley’s analysis of that game mirrors what she said after Florida State — USC’s game plan was to take away its opponents’ main strengths and force them to win with their other players.
“The game plan was to try to take away the most productive part of their makeup, and that was inside play and obviously we tried to do that, but they were hitting from the outside,” Staley said after Baylor.
“You pick and choose where you want teams to beat you,” Staley said after Florida State. “We made them go to probably their third or fourth option in beating us. Because if push comes to shove, you don’t want (Kiah Gillespie) to beat you, you don’t want (Nicki Ekhomu) to beat you, you don’t want (Valencia Myers) to beat you. You want (Morgan Jones) to beat you. And she almost did that.”
Taking Cox and Brown out of the game and limiting second-chance points was a major factor in Baylor’s only loss of the year. On Dec. 15, Stanford held the pair of forwards to a combined seven points and nine rebounds, just one of them on the offensive end, and the Lady Bears got just three second-chance points, more than 11 points lower than their season average.
Of course, even if South Carolina is able to keep the Lady Bears off the offensive glass, the Gamecock guards will have their hands full holding BU’s backcourt in check and keeping the game close. But if the Gamecocks are to pull off the upset (FiveThirtyEight currently gives Baylor an 89 percent chance of winning), they almost certainly can’t afford to give up 27 more offensive rebounds in a game.
NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Sweet 16 schedule
The games, TV channels and schedule for the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
No. 2 seed Iowa vs. No. 3 North Carolina State, 11:30 a.m. ESPN
No. 1 seed Baylor vs. No. 4 seed South Carolina, 2 p.m., ESPN
No. 1 seed Mississippi State vs. No. 5 seed Arizona State, 9 p.m., ESPN2
No. 2 seed Oregon vs. No. 6 seed South Dakota State, 11:30 p.m., ESPN2
No. 2 seed UConn vs. No. 6 seed UCLA, 7 p.m., ESPN
No. 1 seed Louisville vs. winner of No. 4 seed Oregon State, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
No. 1 seed Notre Dame vs. No. 4 seed Texas A&M, 4 p.m., ESPN2
No. 11 seed Missouri State vs. winner of No. 2 seed Stanford, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2