Dawn Staley: South Carolina brings confidence, prove-them-wrong attitude to Sweet 16
A lot can change in four months. South Carolina women’s basketball is counting on it.
On Dec. 2, 2018, the Gamecocks hosted then-No. 4 Baylor at Colonial Life Arena and were run off their feet early in a 94-69 blowout loss. Now, nearly 120 days later, No. 4 seed USC and No. 1 seed BU will meet again, this time in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Both teams’ seasons have changed trajectories plenty in between the two contests, and the two teams that play each other Saturday will be in vastly different places from where they were.
“I think we’re a lot healthier,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “I think we have a better understanding of each other and I think we’re confident at this time.”
Specifically, Staley is counting on the better health of a pair of seniors — forward Alexis Jennings and guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore.
“Alexis was banged up, Bianca Cuevas-Moore was banged up. They played key pieces to our success throughout the season, and they are as healthy as they can be at this point,” Staley said. “We need Alexis to show up and play and be that enforcer inside. We need Bianca Cuevas-Moore to be impactful on both sides of the ball, knocking down shots and playing underneath people and pressuring.”
Despite South Carolina’s improved health, Baylor will still roll into the contest brimming with confidence — the Lady Bears have won their five games this postseason by an average margin of 36.2 points and still have the frontcourt combo of 6-foot-4 Lauren Cox and 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown, an All-American duo that can completely dominate inside.
Rebounding, especially against teams with bigger frontcourts, has been area of concern all season long for South Carolina, but speaking on Wednesday, Staley indicated that the Gamecocks won’t worry so much about out-muscling Cox and Brown inside as simply blowing by them.
“I’m hoping we take it out with speed,” Staley said of Baylor’s height advantage. “We can get up and down the floor, so hopefully what we give up in height and girth we can more than make up for with speed. That’s the plan as of right now.”
That being said, while Cox and Brown get the most attention, Baylor’s guards are no slouches. Graduate transfer point guard Chloe Jackson was an All-SEC selection at LSU, junior guard Juicy Landrum shoots 40.8 percent from 3 while averaging more than four rebounds and four assists per game, and the Lady Bears have five five-star freshmen on the bench.
That’s why this time around, Staley said, South Carolina isn’t going to try to adapt itself to Baylor’s strengths.
“I don’t think there’s one key,” to beating Baylor, Staley said. “We could say rebounding, but they shoot it at 50 percent, or very near there. There won’t be a whole lot of rebounds in the game. I think we just need to play fast. I think we need to play our style of play. I think the last time we played them, we tried to pack it in and play zone. We’re not going to play that. We’re gonna play the style of defense we’ve been playing the last couple of weeks and just try to disrupt.”
In Baylor’s lone loss this year, on Dec. 15 at Stanford, the Lady Bears had a miserable shooting performance, making just 34.9 percent of their shots from the field. Brown was contained inside by 6-foot-5 center Shannon Coffee and BU’s offense stagnated, turning the ball over 15 times compared to 13 assists. Stanford, meanwhile, relied heavily on the 3-pointer, with half of its field goal attempts from long range, and made 13 of 30 of them.