For the Gamecocks, they played to their potential, for final game against Baylor
Heading into the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, South Carolina women’s basketball had clear path for for how it would upset No. 1 overall seed Baylor: 3-pointers, speed in transition and defensive pressure.
But in the first half at Greensboro Coliseum on Saturday, the fourth-seeded Gamecocks couldn’t get any of those things, and the Lady Bears roared to an early lead that pushed them a 93-68 win, ending the Gamecocks’ season.
“When you’re game planning, it looks good, but when it’s the actual real thing, you’re a step too slow,” USC coach Dawn Staley said of her team’s slow start. “And we had stretches in which there were lapses in executing what we wanted.”
The trajectory of the game mirrored the two teams’ first meeting this season on Dec. 2, when Baylor (34-1, 18-0 Big 12) dominated the first quarter en route to a 94-69 win over Carolina (23-10, 13-3 SEC).
Like that first game, however, the Gamecocks showed fight in the second half after the outcome already seemed certain. South Carolina actually outscored Baylor by one point over the final 20 minutes on Saturday and got into the flow of their game plan.
“At halftime, we just kinda … analyzed our team. Three or four of them have played at this level. So the other ones that haven’t played at this level, it was a big stage in which you have to have a lot of experience in knowing how to deal with it. I thought the game settled down after halftime,” Staley said.
It wasn’t enough, however, to overcome a brutal first half in which the Gamecocks shot just 30.3 percent from the field, missed all seven of their 3-point attempts and were outscored on the fast break 11-2. All of those issues fed on each other, junior guard Te’a Cooper said.
“In order to keep pushing the ball and get in transition and stuff, we had to score, and we weren’t really scoring too much,” Cooper, who wound up leading the team with 17 points, said.
Without any speed, USC had no answer for Baylor’s senior frontcourt combo of Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox, who feasted in the paint, combining for 16 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and five blocks in the first half. Their dominance also freed sophomore guard DiDi Richards to score 15, tying her career high.
“That’s something that’s going to happen if they continue to double-team our posts,” Richards said. “I’m just thankful that they are able to find me back-side.”
Baylor led 24-11 at the end of the first quarter and pushed its lead past 20 with a 15-2 burst early in the second quarter. At halftime, the Lady Bears were shooting 52.6 percent and up 26 points, cruising to their fifth consecutive Elite Eight berth.
“They were just going up stronger, I guess,” USC senior forward Alexis Jennings said of Brown and Cox. “We’re giving up a lot of height advantage with them. We tried to be as physical as possible. It’s unfortunate we came up short. It also seemed like everything they threw up went in.”
At halftime, Staley told her players “we had to stick to our game plan. We just had to get up and play defense, try to get some steals, try to make a comeback,” according to junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who finished with 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
The Gamecocks responded, throwing a fullcourt press at BU and narrowing the deficit to 16 points in the the third quarter after four consecutive points from senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore.
“They got to the foul line and we were hacking and trying to block shots,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “They got into the paint, and they were dribble-penetrating and trying to make some exciting things happen for themselves.”
That was as close as the Gamecocks would get however, as Baylor regained control with a quick 6-0 run before the fourth quarter and then cruised home, led by Richards, who tallied 25 points.
This marks the first time since 2011-2012 that USC has had 10 losses in a season, but Staley and her players expressed pride in making it as far as they did.
“I’m proud of my team, Jennings said. “We played for 40 minutes, but I feel like we had to play nearly perfect to beat them. But we left it all out there on the court, I have no doubts.”
SOUTH CAROLINA (23-10) Jennings 0-4 5-6 5, Cliney 1-3 0-0 2, Cooper 5-9 5-6 17, Harris 2-8 1-1 5, Henderson 1-6 0-0 2, Grissett 2-4 0-0 4, Herbert Harrigan 5-13 6-6 16, Saxton 1-1 0-0 2, Wesolek 0-0 0-0 0, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Cuevas-Moore 3-12 5-6 13, Jackson 1-1 0-2 2, Perry 0-2 0-0 0, Totals 21-63 22-27 68.
BAYLOR (34-1) Cox 4-9 8-10 17, Brown 9-20 0-1 18, Jackson 6-14 0-0 12, Landrum 4-6 4-6 12, Richards 11-14 3-3 25, Bickle 0-0 0-0 0, DeCosta 0-0 0-0 0, Smith 1-4 0-0 2, Egbo 1-2 1-2 3, Oliver 0-0 0-0 0, Scott-Grayson 1-1 0-0 2, Ursin 0-1 2-2 2, Totals 37-71 18-24 93.
Halftime: Baylor 49-23. 3-Point Goals: South Carolina 4-19 (Cliney 0-1, Cooper 2-4, Harris 0-3, Henderson 0-2, Herbert Harrigan 0-1, Cuevas-Moore 2-7, Perry 0-1), Baylor 1-4 (Cox 1-2, Landrum 0-1, Ursin 0-1). Assists: South Carolina 9 (Harris 6), Baylor 20 (Cox 6). Fouled Out: South Carolina Herbert Harrigan. Rebounds: South Carolina 30 (Herbert Harrigan 5), Baylor 54 (Cox 14). Total Fouls: South Carolina 18, Baylor 20. Technical Fouls: None. Attendance: 6,544.