CHARLOTTE — Offense comes and goes, especially at South Carolina this season. After feeding the ball to A’ja Wilson for four years, the Gamecocks have not had a steady scorer this season, relying on different players in different games.
But defense? That they could always control.
It showed up Friday in the first round of the women's NCAA Tournament.
Dawn Staley’s defensive dynamos held Belmont to three points in the second quarter as they shot past the Bruins 74-52. The Gamecocks (22-9) will play Florida State, a 70-67 winner over Bucknell, on Sunday with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.
“They’re a team in which they have a lot of experienced players used to playing with each other. We knew we had to disrupt,” Staley said. “I thought we did a great job of just hounding them all game long, so when they got a lot of open looks, they didn’t go in.”
Belmont (26-7) was averaging nine 3-pointers per game, so USC had forward Alexis Jennings and 6-foot fifth-year senior Doniyah Cliney guarding the perimeter early. After some initial lapses where the lane was left wide open, the Gamecocks began to click.
With sophomore forward Lele Grissett helping on the wings, the Gamecocks locked the paint and forced the Bruins to keep passing. Two shot-clock violations, four steals and two blocked shots later, USC held a 13-point halftime lead.
“They’re big, they’re long, they’re athletic,” said Belmont's Darby Maggard, the Ohio Valley Player of the Year who averages 17 points but was held to 13 on 5-of-11 shooting. “There were a couple of times where we had open shots early in the possession that we didn’t take.”
After the break, the Bruins hit a few shots that the Gamecocks kept equaling. Cliney, rising to her role as a postseason stalwart, had six of her 10 points in the third as USC pulled away.
“After (losses to Mississippi State and Arkansas), we knew we had to find a way to compete and raise our defensive pressures,” Jennings said. “The fact that everybody on the floor can guard perimeter players is going to be key for us.”
• The third quarter has been a bear trap all season. The Gamecocks weren’t great at finishing the first half, either.
“We knew that the third quarter we don’t come out too well,” Cliney said. “We had to come out and make a statement this game and the rest of the games going forward.”
On Friday, they gave up seven points to start the third, then outscored the Bruins 31-13 to finish.
• Belmont averages 12 turnovers a game. The Gamecocks forced nine in the first half and 17 for the game. Those led to 27 points.
• Balanced scoring wins ballgames. Te’a Cooper had 15 points, while Jennings and Ty Harris collected 12 each. Cliney had 10 and Bianca Jackson eight.
• The Gamecocks’ speed and transition produced 16 fast-break points.
• USC had 14 turnovers, but many came at the end of the game. The Bruins only had eight points off of them.
• Bianca Cuevas-Moore didn’t play. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan sat out the first half but had five points, two rebounds and three blocks in the second.
“I decided not to play them for a half and for an entire game,” Staley said. She said that obviously something happened to trigger the suspensions but she wouldn’t divulge what it was.
The Gamecocks didn’t need the two on Friday but will most likely need all hands on Sunday. Staley said the plan moving forward is that they’ll have everyone available for 40 minutes, if need be.
The Gamecocks take on No. 5 seed Florida State at 2 p.m. on Sunday.