Perhaps it’s best this way. South Carolina steamrolled opponents so often last season that not playing its best (but still beating) top competition early this year can be viewed as an indicator for how the No. 2 Gamecocks will play in March.
That’s the expectation.
“What was good about it is we were tested, we were resilient at being tested and we got wins. That was the most important thing,” coach Dawn Staley said after a five-game road swing where USC (7-0) wasn’t at its peak, but still didn’t lose. “Slowly, slowly, everybody’s getting more and more comfortable with their role and how they can impact our team on both sides of the ball.”
The team’s defense, which has been the backbone of the past four NCAA Tournament seasons, hasn’t been as strong as usual because of the losses of Aleighsa Welch, Elem Ibiam and Olivia Gaines. Staley knows that, and practice – since USC returned from Los Angeles and Hawaii – has been stressing on-the-ball D.
It’s getting better, and Staley isn’t concerned about some rough games. Plus, it’s great to see another aspect of last year’s team still very much alive.
If one star player has a bad night – think Alaina Coates and Khadijah Sessions during most of the road trip – others are stepping in. A’ja Wilson is playing the best basketball of her career and Bianca Cuevas sparkled in Hawaii. That’s how the team was built – the ability to roll in wave after wave of All-American talent and power through struggling stretches.
During the trip, USC played a Top-20 Arizona State team and a UCLA squad that had the best recruiting class in the country two years ago. The games weren’t as pretty as expected, but they weren’t nearly as ugly as they could have been.
“But I’d rather be bad winning than bad losing,” Staley said. “We just didn’t have enough time to practice. When you’re playing great teams, great competition, they’re going to find flaws in your game.”
Coates’ productivity was hampered on the road, different basketballs and foul trouble affecting her minutes. The Gamecocks’ preferred approach is to work the ball inside, and while Coates mostly got the ball, she didn’t score.
“I didn’t do the best that I could,” she admitted. “Definitely just not hitting shots and free throws kind of frustrated me at some point. I know my team needs me. I can’t be out there feeling bad for myself.”
Another Top-25 opponent awaits on Sunday, with No. 14 Duke coming to Columbia as a return engagement from last year’s game. Wilson won that on a last-second putback, set up by Gaines’ steal in the final minute.
Memories of that game play into Staley concentrating on defense this week. With speed and ball-handling up top, being able to scoop and score takes a lot of the burden off the offense. After this one, the Gamecocks can progress through finals and have a month of no school to fine-tune what’s still an undefeated basketball team.
“We played three or four Top 25 teams in the country, and they expose you,” Staley said. “They’re as good as you are, it’s early in the season and they’re playing some stuff you haven’t seen yet. It’s good to see us continue to win on the road and playing against some great competition.”
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NO. 14 DUKE (7-1) at NO. 2 SOUTH CAROLINA (7-0)
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
Duke’s probable starters: G Kyra Lambert 5-9 Fr. (6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg); G Angela Salvadores 5-10 Fr. (8.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg); G Rebecca Greenwell 6-1 So. (14.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg); F Kendall Cooper 6-4 Jr. (3.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg); F Azura Stevens 6-6 So. (19.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G Khadijah Sessions 5-8 Sr. (5.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-9 Sr. (13.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G Tina Roy 5-11 Sr. (5.4 ppg, 1.7 rpg); F A’ja Wilson 6-5 So. (17.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg); C Alaina Coates 6-4 Jr. (9.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
Next game: USC hosts Winthrop at 2 p.m. on Dec. 13.