Entering Sunday's play against Winthrop, undefeated South Carolina had faced a pretty tough schedule in their first month and a half into the 2015-16 season. The Gamecocks have played four games against nationally ranked opponents; a opening day 88-80 win over #10 Ohio State, a 68-65 win at #20 UCLA, a 60-58 win over #24 Arizona State in Hawaii and a 66-54 win over #13 Duke.
So it stood to reason that 8-0 South Carolina would sooner or later have a home non conference women's basketball game against a less formidable foe. Thus the likely guaranteed game vs. Big South opponent Winthrop yesterday at the Colonial Life Arena. But no matter who the opponent is on the court, the fans in Columbia love to turn out in droves for their #2 nationally ranked Gamecocks. 13,409 of them to be exact.
Fans were a little concerned when they saw A'ja Wilson in warmup clothes quietly walking the court, shaking hands with referees before the game, as her teammates practiced on their side of the hardwood. Wilson is day to day with "nagging injuries" and her status for Wednesday's home game against another non conference opponent in Hampton.
But the fans did not need to worry because the rest of the Gamecocks came to play. And Alaina Coates gave everyone in the crowd a reason to go home happy after the game.
It was nice to be back in Colonial Life Arena. It was my first live game of the college basketball season and it was good to have my older son Matthew with me as well. As we got to our season ticket seats in section 115, I immediately got a text from my friend Toisha. Her son Bryson, who is a good friend of Matthew's, along with being his baseball teammate, had spotted us going down to our seats from their section, three sections over. I knew what would we be doing at halftime.
From the tipoff it was clearly apparent that Winthrop had no answer for the Gamecocks size. Even without the six foot four Wilson, the other six footers in South Carolina's lineup; the junior Coates, graduate transfer senior Sarah Imovbioh, senior Asia Dozier and sophomore Jatarie White were dominant all game long. The Gamecocks had sixteen blocks on the game and outrebounded the Eagles 48-32.
One of the things I have to get used to now in women's college basketball is that the game is broken up into quarters. At least for yesterday's game, it made the game seem quicker. It could have also been the fact that the Gamecocks came out strong in the first quarter, taking a 26-7 lead after the first ten minutes.
And it wasn't like Dawn Staley kept the starters in for the entire first quarter. After a few minutes, Staley did a hockey line change, taking out four of her starters. It didn't matter who was on the court for South Carolina. They were relentless and fun, especially watching sophomore guard Bianca Cuevas. The Bronx, New York native is a five foot six dynamo who often flies the court with seemingly reckless abandon.
One particular highlight in the game was Cuevas driving strong to the basket and then took an offense balance layup where the ball arched high off the backboard and into the basket. Staley had a sheepish grin on her face knowing it might not have been the most fundamentally sound basketball move, but you have to let Cuevas be Cuevas.
There was no let up by South Carolina in the second quarter, as they outscored Winthrop 21-6. Along with Cuevas' circus shot layup, the other highlight of the first half was Coates blocking back to back Eagles' shots. Then after the second block, Coates grabbed the ball and fired an outlet pass. This lead to a Gamecocks' fast break basket and had the fans roaring in approval. South Carolina was up 47-13 at the half.
At halftime, Matthew and I made our way to our friends over at section 118. There was a group of seats open in front of the row Toisha and Bryson were sitting at. Bryson quickly joined Matt in the row and a few minutes later were going around the arena, including hanging out with Cocky, the Gamecocks' mascot. The two partners in crime were having fun and that's all that matters.
Three words described the second half of play - "Rinse, Lather, Repeat". The Gamecocks came out of the locker room after halftime and continued to roll. What I love about Staley's game plan, and she's not shy about it, is that the Gamecocks work the ball inside to Coates and then it's either a shot at the basket or when the defense converges, she kicks it out to open players on the wing. The Gamecocks shot 9 of 24 from outside the arc, a respectable 37.5 percent. It's simple fundamental basketball that works.
Coates would shoot a ridiculous 13 of 15 from the field and hit three of her five free throws from the line. She already had a double double easily into the third quarter as she had six offensive rebounds on the game.
The Gamecocks were up 80-32 with about five minutes left in the game. The Gamecocks had all their reserves in with the exception of one person; Coates. And there was a reason for that. Coates had a chance to get a triple double in the game with one more block. She got that with just a few seconds left in the game for her first career triple double; 29 points,16 rebounds and 10 blocks.
For my first live game of my tenth year of covering men's and women's college basketball, I got to see one of the best overall performances in those ten years. Coates was clearly the best player on the court on Sunday, leading her team to a 86-37 drubbing of Winthrop.
Coates is on a serious roll, having hit 20 of her last 24 shots (she was 7 of 9 vs. Duke). She is shooting sixty seven percent from the field on the season. And Coates is only the third leading scorer for South Carolina on the season (Wilson averages 18 points per game, Tiffany Mitchell averages 13 points per game).
Something tells me Wilson will get another day of rest on Wednesday in the Gamecocks next home game vs. Hampton. As South Carolina fans now know, Coates has got her covered.