COLUMBIA — Before departing for the program’s first Final Four, the players on South Carolina’s women’s basketball made sure to pack enough clothes to get them through Tuesday — which is the night of the national championship game.
“That’s just how our team is,” said senior forward Aleighsa Welch. “You’ll definitely see some people who’ll have two or three bags.”
Getting there, though, first entails overcoming a national semifinal opponent which has become a fixture in the Final Four, and presents one of the best players in the nation. Notre Dame is making its fifth consecutive trip to the national semifinals, has won 21 straight games, and is known for a high-scoring offense built around national player of the year candidate Jewell Loyd.
Notre Dame, whom USC plays Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., averages 80.9 points per game, and has three starters shooting better than 50 percent from the floor.
The Irish rank second nationally in field goal percentage, fourth nationally in scoring margin, and fifth nationally in scoring offense, making them most potent offensive team South Carolina has faced since it traveled to Connecticut in February.
“They’re like a machine from an offensive standpoint. They’re in the likes of Connecticut where they find the person who’s supposed to shoot the ball. They make basketball look beautiful and easy, because they feed off each other,” USC head coach Dawn Staley said Thursday, after the Gamecocks (34-2) wrapped up their final practice in Columbia.
“They use everybody. They use every single body that’s on the floor. They’re patient. They’re methodical in what they do from an offensive standpoint. They’re good and efficient, and when you play that type of basketball, it’s hard (to defend). But we have to be equally as disciplined as they are out there on the floor.”
Yet as effective as Notre Dame (35-2) can be on offense, head coach Muffet McGraw sometimes uses a limited rotation — just six players saw double-digit minutes in the regional final victory over Baylor — and her tallest players stand 6-3, giving up size to a USC back line which can boast three players 6-4 or taller.
“I don’t think we match up very well,” McGraw said on a teleconference with reporters. “They are so strong in the post and their depth. You can’t even think about getting them into foul trouble, or what if they play with a smaller lineup, because they have so many people they can bring off the bench.”
Staley, whose team can go 10 deep, certainly hopes that’s the case. “I think our depth will hopefully have a factor in the game,” she said.
At the center of the Irish attack is Loyd, a 5-10 guard who averages 19.9 points per game, and scored 31 against Connecticut and 34 against Tennessee. Against that kind of onslaught, USC may not be able to weather another slow start like it overcame in the regional, where it fell behind North Carolina by eight points and Florida State by 10.
“I think we do need to get off to a quicker start, and not dig ourselves in a hole,” Staley said. “But Notre Dame is ... very patient, they’re very calculating. They like to make you play for long stretches on defense. So they take some of the possessions out of the game, because they’re so patient with what they want to do. For us, I think we let our team know that we got off to two slow starts. I think we’ve had to make adjustments to how teams are playing us. So we have that reflect on, and hopefully we’ll use it to our advantage and get off to a better start.”
Both defenses will be under pressure — USC to slow Notre Dame’s precision attack, the Irish to negate the Gamecocks’ superior height and depth. Whichever team is more successful stands the better chance of remaining in Tampa until Tuesday.
“We’re going to throw everything we can at them, and see how the matchups look,” McGraw said. “We are a man-to-man team, and that is our primary defense. Offensively, we’re just going to run our stuff the same as we do every other game. I don’t think we’ll do anything different offensively. But defensively is where we’ll really be challenged.”