Who: No. 23 South Carolina (9-4) vs. Alabama (9-5)
When: Noon, Sunday, Jan. 6
Where: Colonial Life Arena
Radio: 107.5 FM in Columbia
Series history: South Carolina leads the all-time series 24-15, including an active 12-game win streak dating to 2009. The Crimson Tide have not beaten the Gamecocks in Columbia since 2000.
Last meeting: A’ja Wilson led USC to a brisk 79-66 win in Tuscaloosa last season, tallying 21 points, 9 rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes. Alabama returns just one starter from that game.
Te’a taking over: Throughout the nonconference portion of the season, it often seemed that South Carolina lacked a go-to, do-everything player that could take over the game when necessary — redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings was banged up, junior guard Tyasha Harris seems to thrive most in a supporting role, junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan struggled with consistency and redshirt junior guard Te’a Cooper was brilliant to start the year but quiet as 2018 ended.
In the SEC opener against Texas A&M, however, Cooper took over in a major way, tallying 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists to lead the Gamecocks to their biggest win of the year on the road. That success, coach Dawn Staley said, extended to her defensive performance, where she mostly matched up against star Aggie Chennedy Carter.
“There are very few players that have the offensive prowess of a Te’a Cooper that ... embrace the challenge of playing someone very talented like Chennedy Carter. Tiffany Mitchell comes to mind, but there aren’t a lot of them that want to take on that responsibility. They want to outscore them, but they don’t want to shut them down. Te’a took on that, that’s her personality, and us winning probably gives her the edge,” Staley said.
Cooper’s confidence and aggressiveness started with a conversation Staley had with her the day before the A&M game.
“The message was simple,” Staley said of the 15-minute meeting. “Just because we have to balance out what we’re doing, meaning ... (Jennings) is a lot more healthy than she has been in the past, I want to get the ball to her a lot more, it doesn’t mean (Cooper) has to sacrifice her aggressiveness and her ability to score and attack and shoot the basketball.”
The question now will be whether Cooper can replicate her performance against Alabama. In the six games before Texas A&M, she was averaging less than eight points per game and struggled with that balance of being a distributor and scorer, something Staley acknowledged.
“I wish we had that conversation a lot earlier,” Staley said.
Herbert Harrigan stepping up: Staley also had high praise for Herbert Harrigan’s performance against the Aggies, as she recorded new career highs in rebounds, with 16, and blocks, with six, and also collected her second double-double of the year.
“Kiki got rebound after rebound after rebound, and then we just kept attacking,” Staley said of the second half.
While most of the talk surrounding South Carolina’s frontcourt has been about Jennings, Herbert Harrigan has continued to post steady improvement from her first two seasons, while also blossoming into one of the nation’s premier shot blockers.
Her two biggest games this year have coincided with the Gamecocks’ toughest wins — at A&M and a double-overtime thriller with Purdue. But every time she’s scored in double figures this year, she’s failed to do so in the next game. Consistent high-level performances like she had against the Aggies will be crucial moving forward.
‘Bama attacking the boards: USC enters Sunday’s matchup as the heavy favorite over a Crimson Tide team that hasn’t won in Columbia in nearly two decades. Alabama already has losses to Alabama State and Louisiana Tech on its record this year and ranks 111th in RPI.
However, coach Kristy Curry did guide her squad to a home win over Florida to open SEC play, and Staley pinpointed one area of their game that concerns her.
“They offensive rebound. They rebound. They play relentless. They’re going to play for 40 minutes. They won an SEC game yesterday, so we’re not going to take them lightly,” Staley said.
South Carolina projected starting lineup: Junior guard Tyasha Harris, redshirt junior guard Te’a Cooper, freshman guard Destanni Henderson, redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings, junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
Alabama projected starting lineup: Junior guard Cierra Johnson, senior guard Shaquera Wade, freshman guard Megan Abrams, sophomore forward Ariyah Copeland, sophomore forward Jasmine Walker
South Carolina key stats: The Gamecocks rank second in the nation in both total blocked shots and blocks per game and are on pace to break the program record in both categories. ... South Carolina opponents have a 3-point rate of 20.6 percent, eighth lowest in the country. Those 3-pointers turn into 21.5 percent of opponents’ points. ... USC continues to be one of the nation’s top teams in getting to the free throw line, with 283 attempts so far this year, 28th in the NCAA. The Gamecocks are also making those free throws at the second-best rate in the Dawn Staley era.
Alabama key stats: The Crimson Tide are the least whistled team in the SEC, with the lowest foul rate in the conference. Conversely, Alabama is also one of the league’s best teams at getting to the free throw line, with 301 attempts so far this year. ... Alabama opponents are taking 30.9 percent of their shots from 3-point range this season.
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