South Carolina Beats Everybody Else
4:50 PM EST on February 13, 2023
Dawn Staley can't win them all. Her declaration Sunday afternoon ("The Eagles have already won. It's divine order. Jalen Hurts.") made her a false prophet in the end. But she won the game she could control, and the one that mattered: a much-awaited showdown between her No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks and No. 3 LSU, two unbeaten SEC teams. The game promised answers to some intriguing questions. Can Angel Reese challenge Aliyah Boston for National Player of the Year? In her second year, how does Kim Mulkey's program stack up against the elite?
South Carolina delivered. The Gamecocks ended Reese's streak of double-doubles at 23 consecutive games, holding her to 5-for-15 shooting and just four rebounds. As for the second question, Mulkey's Tigers stack up, oh, about 24 points worse. Sunday's game mostly confirmed what we already knew: 1) The gap between the two best teams in the SEC is still pretty big; 2) Aliyah Boston is prepared to defend her NPOY and championship titles as adeptly as she defends opponents; 3) The Gamecocks remain the great matchup nightmare of college basketball. The only question they left unresolved is, How do you beat South Carolina?
You can't, says Mulkey. "It's South Carolina and everybody else. It's South Carolina and everybody else," the head coach said after the 88-64 loss. "They have too much talent, they have too much depth, they have too much size. They have everything they need." She's right. The depth advantage separates Mulkey's team from Staley's. LSU pins its hopes on Reese each night, and a stifled Reese—that feels like the right word for the way South Carolina's bigs frustrated her down low—exposes the team's youth and shooting woes.
A few weeks ago, I described LSU as "still trying to figure out how to play basketball together." To be fair, though, this is true of most college basketball teams, enough so that South Carolina becomes striking to watch in comparison. They play as if executing one shared, specific vision. So sound! So in-sync! So complete! The Gamecocks take after their best player: Boston blends sheer strength with a balletic attention to detail. The flashy blocks that made her stand out as a freshman and sophomore still set her game apart. (If anything, they've only been more theatrical.) And now, they've been augmented by quiet, clinical footwork on both ends of the court. Against Reese, and alongside fellow frontcourt phenom Kamilla Cardoso, Boston showed off the defensive craft that has made her this year's presumptive first-overall draft pick for a long time. The vision, faithfully executed, looks a lot like Sunday's game. Boston shined, but so did her teammates. Five players finished in double figures, and every player crashed the glass like they had some quota to meet.
These days you can reliably distill South Carolina's wins to one disparity: They outrebounded LSU 43-25 on Sunday. In last year's national championship game against UConn, the figure was 49-24. They do not merely value rebounding or prioritize rebounding; they consider every other aspect of basketball incidental to rebounding. Geno Auriemma lamented the physicality after UConn's loss to South Carolina a few weeks ago: "It's not basketball anymore." But to quote another great coach, "Rebounding wins championships." Rebounding also wins 31 straight games. Rebounding earns the reported sellout crowd of 18,000 in Columbia. Rebounding is behind the recent news that the city will build a statue of Staley, whose program shows no signs of slowing. Somewhere a sculptor is chiseling away, trying to render the assorted folds and wrinkles of her Randall Cunningham jersey.
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