South Carolina entered the game as the #1 team in the nation, undefeated at 5-0. Their latest win was also their toughest contest to date, a 67-63 win over #22 Syracuse in the championship game of the Junkanoo Jam Tournament in the Bahamas. The Orange shot thirty eight percent, which mind you is a low field goal percentage. Still, that was the first time all season the Gamecocks allowed a team to shoot over thirty three percent from the field. And all the teams that South Carolina defeated entering last night's game were from power or high major conferences - USC (Pac-12), Clemson (ACC), San Diego State (Mountain West), Wisconsin (Big 10) and Syracuse (ACC).
Thus entering Monday night's game against South Carolina, North Carolina Central, A MEAC school that entered the game at 2-3, had a really tall task ahead of them. It was especially a tall task, considering the Gamecocks had four players six foot four or taller. And that height played a big part in suffocating the Eagles all night.
It was quickly apparent from tipoff that NCCU was going to have a hard time scoring on the night. The Eagles won the tip but struggled to get a shot off as the shot clock expired. The Gamecocks quickly gathered the rebound and Alegisha Welch scored on a fast break layup. Again on their next possession, North Carolina Central struggled to get a decent shot off. Again the Gamecocks rebounded and Tiffany Mitchell scored on a fast break layup. Rinse, lather, repeat.
At the first media timeout, the score was 14-3. The Gamecocks would add another eight points, capped by an A'ja Wilson three point play. The six foot five lefty freshman has the quickness of a guard and a fan behind me described her as a young female version of Bill Russell with the way she moves in the paint. I thought it was a pretty good description of Wilson's skills. South Carolina was up 22-3 before you could bat an eye.
It was here that NCCU made a smart move and went to a zone, packing their players in on the South Carolina bigs. Instead of moving the ball to open shooters, the Gamecocks continued to try to work the ball inside, forcing passes to covered frontcourt players, resulting in turnovers. It allowed the Eagles to outscore the Gamecocks 12-7 over the next four minutes. The Eagles were now only down fourteen, 29-15 with 5:17 left in the half.
But that's as close as the NCCU would get the rest of the way. South Carolina would outscore them 10-1 the rest of the half. The Gamecocks would enter the half leading 39-16 as they finally hit a three pointer from the outside, with Asia Dozier doing the damage.
After a halftime show that included Cocky leading a large group of kids in The Chicken Dance, the Gamecocks' Mitchell came out and showed light feet of her own. On the first two Eagles possessions, she stole the ball. One led to a layup by Mitchell, the other a three point play by Welch. South Carolina was quickly up 44-16.
From there, the rout was on. The Gamecocks stepped up their game on both ends of the court. South Carolina, which attempted only three three pointers in the first half, went four for ten from beyond the arc in the second half. The Gamecocks need to do this so that teams won't pack their zone in on the South Carolina bigs.
Meanwhile, NCCU was held to ten total points in the second half. When the Eagles had the ball, if it wasn't stolen, it was blocked. If the shot wasn't blocked, the shot was altered. North Carolina Central just struggled to get any decent shots off on the evening. With ten minutes left, the Gamecocks were already up forty, 63-23 and the Eagles would only score three more points in the game.
All that was left was for Coach Dawn Staley to play everyone on her bench, which she did. All fourteen Gamecocks players played at least two minutes, with twelve of her players playing six minutes or more. South Carolina would go on to the 90-26 victory. It was the third time this season the Gamecocks won by fifty or more points; they defeated Clemson by fifty eight points and San Diego State by fifty one points.
South Carolina shot sixty percent from the field and had five players in double figures scoring. Wilson came off the bench to lead all scorers with sixteen points. She would have had over twenty points easily had she hit a few open shots in the paint. Dozier and Mitchell each had fourteen points. Welch added eleven points and Elem Ibiam had ten points. The Gamecocks had twenty three assists. Khadijah Sessions had eight assists on the night, while Bianca Cuevas had five assists.
The Gamecocks return to action with another home game Thursday night against Charlotte, a team that has lost five straight games after winning their first game. Add to the fact that the Charlotte men's team defeated the South Carolina men's team in the Charleston Classic about ten days ago and things don't bode well for the 49ers.
Especially facing this defensive juggernaut in the Gamecocks.