COLUMBIA — After a handed-away loss to Connecticut that cost them a No. 1 ranking and a stunning defeat to Tennessee where a 15-point lead was blown in less than a quarter, second-ranked South Carolina just needed to feel good.
The Gamecocks still miss too many layups. They still look at the free-throw line like a bag of cobras sits on it.
But when they can destroy No. 17 (and nemesis) Kentucky 76-55 with their National Player of the Year contender scoring a mere four points and hold Wildcats POY contender Rhyne Howard to 12? When they set up the next week as the final step toward their first goal, an SEC regular-season championship?
They’ll take it. For sure, they’ll take it.
“We talked a lot about that the last couple of days, ‘Let’s not trip,’” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “We lost a game, but we’re a pretty good basketball team. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking if we lose a game, the bottom falls out.”
USC (18-3, 13-1 SEC) needs to beat Mississippi at home on Thursday to set up a showdown at No. 5 Texas A&M in six days. With the Gamecocks and Aggies each holding a loss in conference, the winner would take the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament and the SEC regular-season championship.
It’s always a goal, one the Gamecocks have reached five times in the past seven seasons, and up until a week ago, seemed preordained. Not only would USC win that, but it would notch back-to-back 16-0 SEC seasons, a first in conference history.
The UConn loss stung, but it was a non-conference game on the road. The Tennessee loss hurt worse because the Vols were more physical and made season-long problems, somewhat ignored because USC was winning, glare.
The Gamecocks are notoriously bad at scoring layups. They are a middling team from the free-throw line. As elite of a scorer as point guard Destanni Henderson is (she had 14 points Sunday), her ball-handling is suspect and her best asset, speed, was running her into traps and turnovers.
They started against the Wildcats (15-6, 8-5) 0 for 9 in layups and 5 of 11 from the line. They still led, stunningly, because Howard had yet to score and Boston had one point, but the confusion was rampant.
The problem has existed all year, and the Gamecocks definitely work on it. But it hasn’t shown up in games.
Yet on Sunday, even after that start, even with Boston mostly playing decoy (she only took four shots), the Gamecocks raced past it. Shots began falling, (Zia Cooke scored 21 points in a strong shooting game), Laeticia Amihere had 12 and Lele Grissett, starting on her Senior Day, scored 13. USC left 12 points at the line but scored 16.
The layups began to fall, spurred by an immense advantage in transition. USC owned the boards, and although more chances could have fallen, at least those chances were presented.
Most of all, they surrounded Howard, never letting her get into a flow. Staley demurred about what the exact game plan was, but Grissett clarified.
“Lock in. Just lock in on what’s important,” she said. “And she was the most important thing on the court.”
The Gamecocks easily won without their best player, took away the opponent’s best and smacked silly an opponent they always love to smack silly. The online criticism from the Tennessee loss, one that had Staley never fails to jab back at, was just that.
USC isn’t talking about what’s ahead this week, but every player knows. It’s still in place despite a couple of recent rough nights.
USC hosts Mississippi on Thursday.