They know what’s coming.
South Carolina point guard Khadijah Sessions and her backcourt mates Asia Dozier and Tiffany Mitchell have read about, film-watched and scouted Syracuse’s press. The trio knows the Orange (27-7) will be on the ball-handlers from the tip in Friday’s Sweet 16 game, trying to keep their 24.5 forced turnovers per game average and pick up boatloads of easy points.
Like the other 15 teams still playing, the Orange didn’t get here by mistake. It’s a much deeper and aggressive team than the one USC punched out of the round of 32 a year ago, and this time it gets the game on a neutral court far away from either teams’ fans.
But the Gamecocks didn’t get here by accident, either. They expected to be here, then earned their way. At 33-1, talk of a vicious press or superstar scorers doesn’t frighten them.
Because they’re pretty good, too.
“When it comes down to it, we have senior leadership that have been in this situation before,” coach Dawn Staley said on Thursday. “We're going to lean heavily on them to do what they've done for the past four years. You don't get to this point in your program without having senior leadership.”
The three guards will have to control tempo, deny Syracuse’s preference of speeding up the game and get the ball to their greatest strength – posts A’ja Wilson, the SEC Player of the Year, and first-team All-SEC performer Alaina Coates.
“We have faith that our guards will see through the light and get to us,” Coates said.
The Gamecocks have played pressing teams this year. Florida and Ole Miss were 40-minute teams with the press and Kentucky’s style of defense was to constantly hound the ball. None of them did it to the extent of Syracuse, though, the Orange forcing 833 turnovers this year.
It’s a concern for USC, which had 492 assists to 490 turnovers this year. It was Mitchell who led the team in assists – and also in turnovers – while Sessions and Tina Roy had much more solid ratios.
All will be called upon Friday.
“It’s definitely going to start with me,” said Sessions, who directed the team’s nastiness in winning the SEC tournament. “Got to know where we’re going with the ball. Want to dribble through it, we got to go. Want to pass, got to know who we’re passing to. I got to control tempo and make sure my team is calm and knows what we’re doing.”
USC is the veteran. Its roster has played in 16 combined Sweet 16s. The Orange are playing in their first.
Staley credited Syracuse’s confidence, but her team has been here many times before.
“We had a lot of teams try to do this,” Sessions said. “You can beat any press in the country; you just got to know how you’re doing it and what you’re doing.”
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(4) Syracuse (27-7) vs. (1) South Carolina (33-1)
What: Third round, NCAA tournament
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Denny Sanford Premier Center, Sioux Falls, S.D.
Tickets: Available at the box office
Syracuse’s probable starters: G Alexis Peterson 5-7 Jr. (15.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg), G Brianna Butler 5-11 Sr. (13.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), G Brittney Sykes 5-9 Jr. (9.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg), F Isabella Slim 6-0 Jr. (1.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg), C Briana Day 6-4 Jr. (10.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G Khadijah Sessions 5-8 Sr. (6.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-9 Sr. (15.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Asia Dozier 6-0 Sr. (3.1 ppg, 1.1 rpg); F A’ja Wilson 6-5 So. (16.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg); C Alaina Coates 6-4 Jr. (12.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg)
Next game: The winner plays the Tennessee-Ohio State winner at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.