Look to the bench to find Gamecocks’ key to beating Notre Dame

On paper, Notre Dame doesn't have a counter for South Carolina inside players like 6-4 Alaina Coates. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

TAMPA, Fla. — It’s the kind of question that can dog you all the way from Sarasota to Sand Key: is South Carolina’s size and depth advantage enough to negate the high-powered offense Notre Dame brings into this women’s Final Four?

The more you think about it, the more you can convince yourself that either side of that argument is correct. Notre Dame, which plays the Gamecocks at 6:30 tonight, utilizes a spare rotation of about six players and doesn’t have anyone on its roster taller than 6-3. Meanwhile, South Carolina can go 10 deep, can flood the frontcourt with players bigger than anyone in an Irish uniform — and yet were run off the court in February by a Connecticut team which is the closest approximation of the Notre Dame offensive attack.

Within the press room at Amalie Arena, the general consensus is that the savvy Notre Dame has built up over five consecutive Final Four trips will be enough to subdue a wide-eyed South Carolina squad which has reached this point for the first time. And if the Gamecocks get off to another slow start, like the ones they overcame against North Carolina and Florida State in the Greensboro Regional, but this time against an opponent which scores 90 points per game — well, that happens, and USC is likely headed north on Monday along with all the snowbirds bound for home after Easter break.

That’s the worst-case scenario: Notre Dame jumps on USC early, and the always-confident Gamecocks get a little rattled, and things start to snowball just like they did two months ago in Storrs. Notre Dame isn’t Connecticut — the Irish also lost to Miami, which barely made the NCAA tournament — but they’re absolutely potent enough to mash the throttle the moment they sense any weakness.

But if you think that means USC is outmatched, think again. The formula for the Gamecocks is a familiar one — use some outside shots to free up space for South Carolina’s bigs inside — but against the high-powered Irish and the dazzling Jewell Loyd, head coach Dawn Staley will also have to ensure her squad dictates tempo and maintains a pace that allows them to exploit certain mismatches inside.

“They’re not big, and they’re not deep on the front line,” Debbie Antonelli, a Mount Pleasant resident and broadcaster, said of the Irish. “The advantage for South Carolina is to be able to stay big, and not play small and have to match up with Notre Dame. So pace is very important. If Dawn can get the pace where they’re playing a quarter-court game, that’s what they want. They don’t want to get into an up-and-down game. They’ll run when they can, but in order to maximize your size on the front line, you have to make sure you keep the game where you need it. You need a pace where you can stay big.”

Antonelli, who is calling the Final Four for Westwood One radio, picked South Carolina to meet Connecticut in the national championship game Tuesday night. And the Gamecocks may well get there if Alaina Coates can replicate the performance she put on in the Greensboro Regional, where the 6-4 sophomore was voted most outstanding player. Coates was dominant in stretches in the regional, where she had 18 points and 10 boards against North Carolina, and then 14 against Florida State.

“She gets such deep position inside,” Antonelli said. “With that 6-4 frame and those shoulders, Notre Dame doesn’t have anybody to deal with that. If they can get her touches on the block, that’s going to be a handful for Notre Dame. That could put them in foul trouble, it could dictate the pace of the game.”

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw didn’t disagree. “She’s just got such a big body,” she said of Coates. “We really haven’t seen a post player with her size and ability all season long.”

While all eyes will be on All-American matchup on the perimeter between Loyd and USC’s Tiffany Mitchell, it will be well worth watching when Coates and 6-5 freshman A’ja Wilson check into the game right around the first media timeout. Coates is a physical presence that Notre Dame doesn’t have a counter for on paper, and Wilson is the kind of rangy forward who can pull defenders out of the paint. If those two youngsters maintain their poise under the bright lights of the Final Four — well, then South Carolina might just survive to play again one more night.

GENO BEING GENO

UConn coach Geno Auriemma is one of the best interviews in college basketball, men’s or women’s, and he’s been on his game this week. First, he made headlines during a Final Four media conference call for calling men’s basketball “a joke” and saying it was “so far behind the times, it’s unbelievable.” In an era when many men’s teams play a trudging, obstructive style — any state teams come to mind? — Auriemma isn’t altogether incorrect.

Saturday the nine-time national champion was at it again, when asked if he can still use the Huskies’ lone loss of the season, Nov. 17 at Stanford, as motivation.

“I wish we would lose more. I really do. “I wish we would lose on a regular basis like everybody else does, so that when we don’t play well or the other team plays great and we get beat, it becomes kind of part of the college landscape at Connecticut,” he said.

“Hey, you know, it’s all right, they’ll bounce back, they’ll be fine. I think those things help you. And it did help us. I just don’t want that or any other loss at Connecticut to be that’s the reason why we’re going to be good or that’s the reason why kids get better is because we played a team that played really, really well. And I keep reminding my players, not using Stanford in particular, but keep reminding my players all the time that when you play, the team that plays the best that night is going to win if both teams are equally talented. And that game just reinforced that.”

PHONE-FREE ZONE

The key to Maryland’s NCAA Tournament run has been the outstanding play of Lexie Brown and Brionna Jones. But it also might be the fact that head coach Brenda Frese confiscated all of her players’ cell phones before the tournament to minimize distractions.

The idea stemmed from the 2012 tournament, when her players’ cell phones “blew up” after a Sweet 16 victory over Texas A&M. One of Frese’s players confessed to the coaching staff that she was having a hard time managing all of the incoming messages. So last year before the Sweet 16, Frese’s staff collected all the players’ phones, as they did before road games during the regular season. This year, they collected them all before the tournament began.

“It’s been huge,” Frese said. “Our players bought in last year, then again this year when we brought it up and they were all on board. And we have a team rule just the night before when we’re on road games, but just to keep it during this duration, I think helps them to realize they can minimize the distractions that are out there.”

NOTES

— Mitchell on Sunday was honored with the award that bears her coach’s name — the Dawn Staley Award, which goes to the best guard in college basketball. “I have a distinct bias with working with her every day,” Staley said, “but make no mistake about how deserving she is of this award.” The trophy is presented by the Phoenix Club of Philadelphia, Staley’s hometown, and is given to the player who best embodies the skills its namesake possessed.

— Asked if an upset of UConn in tonight’s second semifinal would be good for women’s basketball, Maryland’s Frese minced no words. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean, aren’t we tired of it? I think everybody’s rooting for us. I think we’re ready for some new stories. And our sport needs it, to be quite honest.”