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College Basketball

South Carolina Has The Oomph

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - APRIL 02: Aliyah Boston #4 of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrates with teammates against the Stanford Cardinal during the second quarter in the Final Four semifinal game of the 2021 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on April 02, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas.
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

In their last game, the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks held their opponent to just three points in the fourth quarter. ‘Tis the season for stats like these: goofy tokens of those early, lopsided, forgettable non-conference college basketball games that make for nice background noise at noon on a Monday in November.

Early and non-conference, yes. Forgettable background noise, not so much. South Carolina’s opponent—the poor sweet kids who could not score more than a single field goal in the final 10 minutes of play—was none other than second-ranked UConn. (Second at the time. This week’s AP poll was delayed a day so voters could consider the outcome of this particular game, and UConn has since fallen to third.) With their 73-57 comeback win over the Huskies on Monday, the Gamecocks became champions of the “Bad Boy Mowers Women’s Battle 4 Atlantis” tournament, a name I will be muttering on my deathbed. They move to 6-0 on their season and announce that what was last year an inexperienced but promising group is now ready to live up to the promise. South Carolina could be the season’s most fun team to watch.

Some of this is a function of their extremely cool and courageous schedule. Among the teams they’ve defeated already this season are No. 5 NC State and No. 15 Oregon. Dawn Staley has signed her team up for basically the toughest matchups a coach can put together—”You have to feed them,” she said, by way of explanation—with games against No. 2 Maryland and reigning champion Stanford (last year’s Final Four foe) coming in December and a second meeting with UConn in January. (Not to mention all their opponents in the SEC, a pretty deep conference itself.) Hell yeah!

And then there’s what South Carolina can do when they’re fed. Monday’s UConn game, if early in the season and an unusually bad one for UConn, typified the style of play that South Carolina hopes will bear them a championship. Junior center Aliyah Boston remains the team’s nucleus; back this year are her powerful finishing skills and blocks which I can only describe as “triumphant.” South Carolina’s 42-25 rebounding advantage cost UConn a game the Huskies led by 13 points early, and Boston is why South Carolina is among the best rebounding and shot-blocking teams in the country. The stat may say more about UConn’s bizarre game than anything, but seven of Boston’s 15 rebounds came on the offensive glass; this was more than UConn’s six offensive rebounds total. What’s delightful is that Boston looks to have improved from last year. Already, she’s shown off a good-looking midrange jumper, and begun to take some threes.

Her capability was never in question, but you did sometimes wonder how much space she’d be allowed in the offense. South Carolina’s backcourt last year, between brilliant moments, could be profoundly frustrating. Starting point guard Ty Harris’s graduation in 2020 left guards Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke with lots of new responsibility, and that adjustment often showed in the form of turnovers or sometimes doing, ah, Young College Guard Things like driving into the paint extremely fast without a discernible plan. (Cooke may lead the league in “you gotta hand it to her” possessions that look very unwise at first but turn out OK.) The streaky shooting sometimes meant roaring back to life in the second half, and sometimes meant ugly late-game collapses. But both look excellent this year. Their three-point shooting percentages are way up, Cooke’s turnovers are down, and it was actually Henderson who managed to spark South Carolina’s fourth-quarter run while also bothering UConn’s guards on every possession.

The maturing team—so cliché! But it did take some guts for South Carolina to stay calm while they trailed by double-digits early and to stick with a system whose rewards weren’t immediate. In the end, South Carolina simply wore UConn down. “The combination of their defensive pressure in the fourth quarter and our inability to handle that pressure is basically the game,” Geno Auriemma said. That was Staley’s exact diagnosis, too: “What we do is we pressure,” Staley reminded her team in a (very charming) postgame locker room speech. “It didn’t impact them a whole lot in the first and second quarter, but oh, come the third and fourth quarters. That’s when you saw it happening. We had more oomph than they had.”

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