COLUMBIA — As much as Bianca Cuevas-Moore has exasperated coach Dawn Staley, she’s been equally invaluable. It’s why Staley didn’t hesitate to put her back in the lineup — after demoting her halfway through the year — for the most important part of the 2016-17 season.
That move paid off in a national championship. Long way before this South Carolina team is to that point, but if Thursday started the journey, it sure looked pretty.
Cuevas-Moore propelled the No. 21 Gamecocks to a 71-40 skinning of Florida in her first start of the season, keeping USC (11-4, 3-0 SEC) tied for first place in the conference. It seemed curious to make the move after Staley, superstitious as she is, had won five straight starting freshman Destanni Henderson (and wearing a pair of kangaroo fur-lined clogs).
But Florida, despite its 4-11 record, features the SEC’s third-leading scorer and depends on the 3-pointer. Cuevas-Moore could supply speed to run the Gators off the 3-point line, and could limit Funda Nakkasoglu’s 18 points per game.
“My knee feels amazing, as you can see,” Cuevas-Moore said. “I haven’t felt like this in a long time.”
Cuevas-Moore locked up Nakkasoglu and added eight points to USC’s 19-0 burst to open the game, chipping in a steal, two rebounds and just the 15th blocked shot of her career. She even grabbed the opening tip.
“She’s great. I told her earlier on in the process, her rehabbing and trying to get back to good health, that come SEC time, it would probably be a good target to try to get as healthy as possible,” Staley said. “She’s there health-wise. Conditioning-wise, I don’t think she’s there.”
* Bench strength continues to flourish. The deepest team of Staley’s tenure continues to find a new hero every night, and Thursday was Cuevas-Moore’s turn. She ended with a game and season-high 16 points.
“She’s a difference-maker for us,” Staley said. “We wanted to use these games to kind of gear up for the stiffer competition in the league.”
Not that USC was taking Florida lightly, but after Sunday's game at LSU comes Mississippi State, Missouri and Kentucky in a four-game stretch.
* Ty Harris struggled the last few games but played well Thursday, like Cuevas-Moore supplying an immediate boost in the initial 19-0 run. She ended with 10 points and eight assists.
“Mentally, trying to get over the hump. I know it’s going to be up and down,” Harris said. “My teammates are helping me keep my confidence up.”
* The Gamecocks hit four of their first six 3-pointers and ended 8-of-20. They checked in 7-of-45 from 3 the last three games and 3-of-30 in the last two.
* Staley said that her team leading the SEC in blocked shots was nice but it mostly was just a silver lining of a bad defense. The reason so many shots were being blocked was because of breakdowns on the perimeter, dumping drives to the shot-blockers.
USC did a much better job keeping players in front Thursday. The Gamecocks blocked three shots.
* Florida averages around eight makes off 26 3-point attempts per game. USC held the Gators to 5-of-25.
* After the 19-0 start, Florida played USC pretty evenly in the first half. The Gators even out-scored USC 14-13 in the second quarter.
Staley switched out nearly the entire starting lineup and the Gators began to flow, but never got within single digits of the lead.
* Not that she had to do a lot, but Te’a Cooper only scored two points. It continues to be a mystery to why she won’t shoot.
Cooper, the Gamecocks’ leading scorer, took five shots. The only one she scored on was off a steal and fast-break layup.
* Freshman Elysa Wesolek is out indefinitely after aggravating an ankle injury from high school. She was wearing a boot on her left foot Thursday.
South Carolina is the only school in the SEC with its men’s and women’s teams undefeated in SEC play.
The Gamecocks are at LSU on Sunday.