GREENSBORO, N.C. — There weren’t any tears, and nobody was sitting with a towel over their head refusing to speak.
All of South Carolina’s players had a variation of the same comments and emotions they had Dec. 2 in Columbia, after a similar curb-stomping from these same Baylor Bears.
They’re just better.
“I thought getting to the second weekend of this tournament would be a real goal for us. I didn’t say that out loud, obviously, but I thought it was a real goal, attainable goal, to reach for,” coach Dawn Staley said after Baylor ended USC’s season 93-68 in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. “Obviously, we wanted to end it somewhere else, like Tampa, but we just didn’t have enough.”
So ended a season considered a down year but one that still featured a Sweet 16 berth and runner-up finish in the SEC regular season. As Staley said in the season’s final month, the Gamecocks played well at times but didn’t really beat anybody that good; their talent was enough to win 23 games but not enough to win the ones that really counted.
Finding some way to knock off the country’s top-ranked team definitely would have been one that counted, but as USC found out when the Bears blistered them 94-69 at Colonial Life Arena nearly four months ago, the Bears are good.
And like they did in that game, they took USC (23-10) out of the game before it really began.
Baylor led 10-2 in the first three minutes and had five rebounds while drawing two fouls and forcing two USC turnovers. The Gamecocks had to make shots to have any hope of countering Baylor’s speed and height but missed seven of their first nine tries.
“We’re obviously shorter than them, smaller than them, so it was really tough,” said guard Te’a Cooper, who led the Gamecocks with 17 points. “We had to score, and we weren’t really able to.”
Their boasts from Saturday were they were only down 13 at the end of the first quarter, when they trailed by 19 at the end of the first in Columbia. A third-quarter spurt cut the deficit to 16, but the Bears scored the next six points. Mascot Cocky won the between-period dance-off against Baylor’s Marigold the Bear.
Other than that?
Bad day, season-ending rout against one of the best teams in the country. It happens.
But it wasn’t that long ago that it was USC doing the routing. The Gamecocks have dealt with two good-but-not-great seasons following their 2017 national championship.
The program’s not going anywhere, but everybody got so used to USC convincingly winning so many games that it was hard to swallow watching them get boat-raced Saturday, even if it was to a much better team.
“I’m pretty encouraged by the returning players and pretty encouraged by some of the future players coming into our program that we’ll have enough experience if we’re able to get back to this level of basketball,” Staley said.
• Mikiah Herbert Harrigan was often playing out of position this year. The Gamecocks were so guard-heavy, Herbert Harrigan was often left to play power forward.
The willowy rising senior is much better as a stretch-four or even a three, able to lift her deadly jumper from anywhere inside the arc. Next season, with post recruits coming in, Herbert Harrigan could return to her natural spot and have an All-SEC season.
Herbert Harrigan scored 16 points and fouled out Saturday.
• Sophomore Lele Grissett, as she did last year, played well in the postseason. She was the only USC forward who didn’t play intimidated by Baylor’s height, constantly pressing her body into the 6-7 Kalani Brown and 6-4 Lauren Cox.
• There was always a question surrounding Cooper this year. After losing two years to injury and transfer and with Staley saying last year that Cooper was likely to pro after this season, what would be her status?
Anything can change, but Cooper said she “absolutely” plans to be back next season.
No plans for the WNBA?
• Seniors Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Doniyah Cliney ended their careers after a combined 10 seasons. The two were part of the formerly best recruiting class in USC history.
Cuevas-Moore and Cliney helped USC to a 152-26 record over five years with three SEC regular-season championships, four SEC Tournament championships, five Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights, two Final Fours and one national championship.
Alexis Jennings also finished her career after being at USC the last three years and spending the two before that at Kentucky. Ditto for Nelly Perry, who played her post-graduate year at USC after four years at Clemson.
The countdown begins
The Gamecocks look forward to the arrival of The Class.
Staley’s recruiting haul ranks No. 1 in the country and is already being compared with some of the best of all-time. Laeticia Amihere is already enrolled and has been with the team since January, while Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Olivia Thompson are expected to be enrolled by June.
In a sport where the teams with the most talent advance the farthest, the Gamecocks will be playing in late March again very, very soon. And very often afterward.