COLUMBIA — That’s what it’s supposed to look like.
It isn’t that top-ranked South Carolina looked bad, per se, in its last three games, it’s that the Gamecocks didn’t look dominant. They fell into a bad day at Missouri, resulting in their only loss, and didn’t necessarily struggle so much as took their time to put away contests against Mississippi State and LSU.
Coach Dawn Staley didn’t change one second of her approach. The team was dealing with some slight COVID issues (something that lingers, as Laeticia Amihere remains unavailable) and hadn’t exactly played the opponents’ JV squads. She knew it was all there, it just needed to click.
Kentucky clicked it.
The Gamecocks devoured the No. 21 Wildcats 74-54 on Jan. 9, improving their record against The AP Top 25 this year to 8-0 and reassuring anyone that doubted them over the last three games that, yes, they are still the prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets in Minneapolis. At nearly full strength health-wise, USC (15-1, 3-1 SEC) was at completely full strength game-wise.
“I know because of our record, everybody thinks we’ve arrived, but every day, we see the weaknesses,” Staley said. “Hopefully we’ll continue to get better, just get better.”
The transition, a dizzying combination of Zia Cooke (who celebrated her 21st birthday with 19 points) and Destanni Henderson flashing past opponents and finding the rim. The dominance, All-American center Aliyah Boston posting her ninth straight double-double. The dirty work, forward Victaria Saxton constantly in position for bruise-taking rebounds and putbacks to finish with 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
“I’m really proud of how everybody played,” Boston said. “We knew what we wanted to do before we got into the game, and we pulled it off.”
Then the defense, which held All-American and Boston’s chief competition for SEC Player of the Year, Rhyne Howard, to nine points on 2-of-14 shooting. Kentucky (8-4, 1-1) stayed in the game early because of sizzling 3-point shooting, but the wave of talent USC rolled at the Wildcats, crest upon crest of jaw-dropping skill, enveloped Big Blue in a cloud of garnet and black.
“Obviously Rhyne commands a lot of attention. She is the one person that can change the complexion of the game on both sides of the basketball,” Staley said, crediting the defense of Brea Beal and Bree Hall. “What we want to do is just make her work hard. Just make her think a little bit.”
A lot of statistics could tell the story, but USC had two that leapfrogged the others: 54 points in the paint and 55 rebounds.
“We are a rebounding team,” Staley said. “We are, for the most part, a paint-dominated team. I’m really happy that we’re being more aggressive.”
Staley was also pleased to see the team’s turnovers drastically decline. A big reason why the past three games were close were the yips, USC committing 39 TOs against MSU and LSU combined.
USC had just two in the first half, and while the Gamecocks ended with 12, the majority were in the fourth quarter with the game decided and Staley emptying the bench. Yet in the search of always finding more to work on, Staley pointed out to her team that 12 turnovers isn’t bad.
It’s just the 10 in the second half made it bad.
The Gamecocks host No. 25 Texas A&M on Thursday.