USC still perfect in SEC play

Dawn Staley's South Carolina team remained unbeaten in SEC play and won its 28th straight home game Thursday night by beating LSU. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

Without hesitation, A’ja Wilson pulled up from the 3-point line and let it fly. The ball swished through the net, and the South Carolina freshman ran back down the court with a giant smile on her face.

And why not? It was the first one she’d ever attempted at the college level.

It was that kind of night for the top-ranked Gamecocks, who banished any lingering memories of Monday night’s loss at Connecticut with a convincing victory over LSU. Wilson scored a career-high 26, and South Carolina shot 52 percent Thursday to beat the Tigers 86-62, remain unbeaten in SEC play, and stretch its winning streak at Colonial Life Arena to 29 games.

“You want to get back out there,” said guard Khadijah Sessions, who scored 12. “Everybody hates losing. None of us like losing. We had to come back and impose our will in this game and show that we can bounce back from a loss.”

Indeed, it was a resounding rebound from Monday’s 25-point loss, USC’s worst in nearly four years. Although the Gamecocks (23-1, 11-0 SEC) will lose their No. 1 ranking to the Huskies when the new AP Top 25 is released next week, Thursday’s win allowed them to keep pace with Tennessee, the only other unbeaten in the conference, which remained perfect with a victory at Ole Miss.

“We’re a good basketball team, and nothing or no situation will ever take that away,” said USC head coach Dawn Staley. “No loss to Connecticut. This team is really focused. I think sometimes because we take a loss, we lose sight of all the wonderful things we’ve done over this season. We’re going to progress and we’re going to continue to get better, and not let anything fall apart because we had a bad night.”

LSU (14-10, 8-4) entered on a four-game winning streak, having won seven of nine since a 24-point loss to the Gamecocks in Baton Rouge on Jan. 4. Thanks to the return to leading scorer Danielle Ballard — who was suspended for the first USC game, and led her team Thursday with 16 points — the Tigers had climbed into third place in the conference and received a handful of Top 25 votes.

But they didn’t start a player taller than 6-2, and proved no match inside for USC. The Gamecocks rolled up 42 points in the paint and pulled away behind a 21-4 first-half run powered by the 6-5 Wilson, who hit four tough inside baskets, drew fouls on all of them, and three times converted the free throw.

“I know coming into the game they’re going to try to beat me up, beat us all up,” Wilson said. “So really I just kind of expect it, and have to figure out ways to get around it and ways to play through it. ... I think game by game, I’m learning how to do that, and they’re simulating it in practice, so it kind of carries over to the games.”

For Staley, it’s a welcome progression. Wilson was able to roam the entire court in high school, and growing accustomed to the more physical nature of the college game has been perhaps her most difficult adjustment at USC.

“We are really harping on the fact that people are going to play her more physical,” said Staley, whose team next hosts Vanderbilt at noon Sunday. “I want A’ja Wilson to play. I want her to use the tools in her toolbox night in and night out, whether someone’s physical or not. I think she’s making the adjustment to do that.”

And Wilson’s 3-pointer? It was a designed play. “That was one of the things we were going to work to bring back next year, but it’s never too late to start it. Because she’s got range out there,” Staley said. “I wanted to see her shoot it with confidence. Drew up a play for her to step back and knock it down, and that’s what she did.”

Wilson hadn’t attempted a 3 since her final game in high school, when she sank a trey to force overtime in the state championship. She was admittedly surprised when Staley drew it up — but assistant coach Nikki McCray-Penson told her to be confident.

“That’s really all there is to it, to any shot you take. You just have to be confident,” Wilson said. “I was pretty confident.”