COLUMBIA — Te’a Cooper stole the ball, got fouled and made a badly needed free throw. Te’a Cooper was in on a scramble to get another loose ball, throwing to Bianca Cuevas-Moore for another badly needed free throw. Te’a Cooper stole the inbound pass as Alabama tried to re-take a 62-59 loss to South Carolina Sunday when the win was theirs just 35 seconds previous.
Te’a Cooper, as she did Thursday at Texas A&M, led the No. 23 Gamecocks to a win and a 2-0 SEC start. Te’a Cooper is the biggest reason why USC is 2-0 in the SEC.
So why was Te’a Cooper on the bench for nearly eight minutes over the third and fourth quarters, as the Gamecocks nearly frittered away a game to a team it's now beaten 15 straight times and was without its starting point guard?
“When we’re in a stretch like we are, it’s probably the players that are in there, that I’m trying to give them opportunities to gel a little bit. When I took her out of the game, I said, ‘It’s not anything, I just need to get a combination down there,’” coach Dawn Staley said. “Usually when we get a combination, it is probably for a good bit of time down the stretch, when we actually need to. So it was nothing.”
Freshman Victaria Saxton played her first minutes of the game in that stretch and had five crucial points with two rebounds, before Cooper and Mikiah “Kiki” Herbert Harrigan took over. Herbert Harrigan had 18 points, including a pretty 17-footer immediately after Alabama took its only lead, and Cooper was the defensive star to close it out.
* The Gamecocks (10-4, 2-0 SEC) are still searching for a go-to player and seemed to find it in Cooper, who began driving the lane at Texas A&M after USC spent the first quarter standing around. She scored 24 points then.
Against Alabama, she scored five on 1-of-4 shooting. She also had three turnovers, which has been a problem for all of USC’s point guards all season and continued Sunday (three-year starter Ty Harris had four).
But she calmed the troops when she was on the floor for a team that still lacks a proven offensive identity. And she won the game with her steals.
* Herbert Harrigan is quietly having one of the best individual seasons in the league. She also had nine rebounds and five blocks Sunday, which added to a total that was second-best in the SEC coming into the game.
“It was for me to flash to the high post, and get a shot off,” she said of her lead-taking jumper with 35 seconds to play. “I just had to get it up and be confident.”
* A deep rotation is paying dividends, although it does still leave the question of, “Who are USC’s best five?”
The Gamecocks played 12 of their 13 players and seven scored at least four points each.
* What is this team’s offensive identity? To give Cooper the ball and have the other four screen? To shoot 3s (1-of-12 Sunday)? To give it to the posts (Herbert Harrigan was grand but is more of an outside shooter, while Alexis Jennings was a mere 2-of-8 for six points).
“I want our offense to be do what you do best. And keep it simple,” Staley said. “Whoever has the hot hand, we’re going to try to give it them. That’s fluid, too. Each player gives us something different where we try to put them in positions for what’s best for them.”
* Alabama had a reputation for excellent rebounding and lived up to it. USC beat the Crimson Tide 38-36 in total boards but Alabama had 16 offensively, and scored 18 second-chance points.
* Goodness, the turnovers. The Gamecocks had 17 and most were unforced. Guards were trying to zip passes into the post and posts were trying to zip them back out, and most ended up in crimson hands.
Those gifted Alabama another 17 points.
Cuevas-Moore, the player most adored by the USC faithful, continues to make things happen on the floor. She was the one player always willing to attack the lane.
She scored nine points although, like the rest of the team, she found it tough to always finish at the rim. A big reason the Gamecocks shoot from outside so much is they don’t have that consistent handle in the lane.
The Gamecocks host Florida on Thursday.