OXFORD, Miss. — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley says freshman Bianca Cuevas is like a lot of first-year point guards, learning when to push the pace on offense and when to back off and be patient.
There was little doubt which approach she chose Sunday.
The 5-6 Cuevas scored a career-high 21 points as No. 1 South Carolina recovered from a slow start for a relatively easy 77-59 victory.
It was Cuevas who helped the Gamecocks overcome the early issues, scoring nine points in just 7 minutes during the first half. She used a quick first step to break down the Ole Miss defense almost any time she wanted.
“She’s instant offense,” Staley said. “She’s always finding gaps in the defense and we felt we could utilize her in a way that could push Ole Miss back on their heels. It allowed us to open the game up and play really fast.”
South Carolina (21-0, 9-0 Southeastern Conference) trailed by nine points in the first half before rallying to take a 36-29 halftime lead.
“We’re going to take everybody’s best punch,” Staley said. “That’s what we did. We kept our composure and let the game come to us. We know the game is not won in the first five minutes.”
South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell and A’ja Wilson each scored 11 points, and Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates had 10 apiece. Former Goose Creek High School star Aleighsa Welch had six points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. The Gamecocks’ backups — led by Cuevas — combined for 43 points.
Ole Miss (14-8, 4-5) has lost four straight. Erika Sisk and Shandricka Sessom both scored 12 points to lead the Rebels. Tia Faleru led all players with 13 rebounds.
The Gamecocks struggled to score early, shooting 10 of 26 (38.5 percent) in the first half.
They trailed for a large chunk of the half, but an 8-0 run just before halftime gave the Gamecocks the 36-29 halftime advantage. South Carolina took advantage of Ole Miss’ foul trouble — the Rebels had 17 fouls in the first half.
Ole Miss managed to stay within striking distance until early in the second half. Faleru — the Rebels’ leading scorer and rebounder — went to the bench with four fouls with more than 16 minutes left in the game.
Without the 6-1 senior, the Rebels didn’t have much chance to stop South Carolina’s inside game. The Gamecocks knew it, continually feeding the post for easy layups.
“They’re big, they’re physical and they’re taxing on you inside,” Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said. “They’re hard to score on around the basket because they’re so big.”
Cuevas — who came into Sunday’s game averaging just 5.5 points — added some outside scoring. She made two 3-pointers on Sunday and has steadily improved as the season has progressed, earning a more prominent role in the process.
But she says Sunday’s offensive outburst won’t change her approach.
“I’m just trying to stay focused on getting better in each game I play and help my team win a national championship,” Cuevas said.
South Carolina shot 14 of 25 (56 percent) in the second half to slowly pull away for the win.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks made just three of their first 15 shots from the field. They closed the first half by making 7 of 11.
Ole Miss: The Rebels are 1-13 against top-ranked teams. Faleru came into the game averaging a team-high 15 points, but didn’t score until more than 30 minutes into the game. Ole Miss shot just 8 of 22 (36.4 percent) on free throws.
South Carolina: At Georgia on Thursday night.
Ole Miss: At Vanderbilt on Thursday night.