AFTER ALL THE tears were wiped away following Sunday’s loss to Notre Dame that ended South Carolina’s remarkable run to the Final Four, you had to wonder if lack of experience on basketball’s biggest stage hurt the Gamecocks.
USC was making its Final Four debut as a program. Connecticut was appearing in its eighth consecutive Final Four, Notre Dame in its fifth straight and Maryland was a repeat participant.
The seven players who contributed significant minutes in Notre Dame’s 66-65 semifinal victory entered the game with a combined 18 games of Final Four experience. USC’s entire roster had none.
That disparity in experience of playing with the nation’s eyes watching and in a strange, mostly indifferent environment at Amalie Arena proved costly to USC. The Gamecocks suffered through a dreadful start and watched helplessly as Notre Dame’s veterans showed how to finish.
“I do credit nerves a little bit,” USC sophomore center Alaina Coates said of USC’s start, which featured 11 misses on its first 12 field goal attempts and a pair of turnovers. Nearly eight minutes into the game, USC trailed 17-5.
It is what one expects from a group of mostly teenagers, who were wide-eyed rookies in the national semifinals.
Dawn Staley preached to her team all week leading up to the game that this was a “business trip” to Tampa. She told her team that family get-togethers in Tampa would be limited, if not eliminated. She and her staff scheduled as many meetings and videotape sessions as possible to make certain the team kept its focus on basketball.
Unfortunately for Staley, she was the only coach among the Final Four participants who had to concentrate on that aspect of planning. The other coaches and teams knew how to deal with all the distractions.
While USC was worrying about off-court issues and making certain it did not deviate from the on-court plans that led to a spectacular 34-2 season, Notre Dame coaches were afforded the luxury of adjusting on the fly.
Primarily a man-to-man defensive team all season, Notre Dame changed course against USC. To better contain the offensive output of USC star Tiffany Mitchell, Notre Dame employed a number of gimmick defenses. Mitchell never got into the flow of USC’s offense and finished with 11 points.
Then, on the final play, when everyone in the arena and those watching on TV knew that Mitchell would take the final shot, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw made a couple of game-winning adjustments.
First, she inserted seldom-used junior Hannah Huffman to guard Mitchell. Then McGraw had her defenders “hedge” on a pair of screens near the top of the key, preventing Mitchell from driving to the basket and forcing her beyond the 3-point line. Mitchell could neither pass the ball, nor shoot it, and her desperation throw at the basket did not come close as the final buzzer sounded.
It proved to be a devastating way to end an otherwise glorious season for USC women’s basketball. And, while there might have been lessons learned from the Final Four experience, mostly it was the experience alone that will further USC’s cause in seasons to come.
Freshman center A’ja Wilson said USC players now know what it takes to not only return to the Final Four – but also to win it.
“Aja’s the type of player who needs the experience,” Staley said of Wilson, who led USC with 20 points and added nine rebounds and four blocked shots. “I think she played a tremendous game for us, but she’ll see where she can impose her will even more.
“For her to experience it, and for our entire program to experience playing in the Final Four, it’s only going to help us, and it’s only going to fuel them to get better to put ourselves in this position again and get different results.”
For USC to return to the Final Four next season, every returning player will need to improve in specific areas. Guard Khadijah Sessions needs to develop an outside shot; guard Bianca Cuevas must learn to bridle her breakneck style of play; Wilson has to learn to play stronger defense without fouling; and someone other than Mitchell will need to step up and make plays at the end of games.
Beyond that, USC also must find a replacement for departing senior Aleighsa Welch, who was the team’s heart and soul. Off the court, she served as the team’s spokesperson. On the court, she did the grunt work as evidenced by her 10-point, 14-rebound effort against Notre Dame.
Accomplishing all of that is entirely possible. If so, USC likely will find itself in the Final Four again with a chance to win the national championship. Next time, though, the Gamecocks will have experience under their belt.