After a stretch of stressful games all undecided until the fourth quarter or beyond, South Carolina women’s basketball never gave coach Dawn Staley a chance to worry Thursday night, rolling to an easy 71-40 win over Florida.
The Gamecocks (11-4, 3-0 SEC) sprinted to an early 19-0 lead over the Gators (4-12, 0-3 SEC) and strolled from there to the team’s biggest win in six weeks.
“We just came out eager and ready to play, and our 3s were falling, and our jump shots. We were pushing the ball in transition,” junior guard Tyasha Harris said.
Leading the charge, redshirt senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore got her first start of the season and immediately made her first three shots from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers, to go with a rebound, assist, block and steal in the first five minutes.
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After missing all of the 2017-2018 season due to an ACL injury, Cuevas-Moore has been slowly coming along this year, flashing some of her old explosiveness in limited minutes off the bench. She was finally turned loose Thursday and took full advantage, leading all scorers with 16 points on incredibly efficient shooting.
“My knee feels amazing, as you can see,” Cuevas-Moore said. “It really feels good, though. I haven’t felt like this in a long time.”
Florida finally cracked the scoreboard with 3:51 left in the first quarter on a layup from redshirt senior guard Funda Nakkasoglu. But the Gators, normally one of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the country, struggled to connect on what looks they did get and finished the game shooting just 20 percent from 3.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks cooled off, shooting just 32 percent from the field in the second quarter. But their defensive pressure remained high, allowing them to take a 37-23 lead into the break.
“We had two really good days of practice,” Staley said. “We had to jolt them a little bit yesterday and start the practice over. ... I just didn’t think we were focused enough, so I started the practice over, and then they got it. And then today in shootaround, they were just really loose, ready to play.”
After halftime, Cuevas-Moore drilled two more 3-pointers, and redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings added five points in the third quarter as USC stretched the lead to 25. The Gamecocks’ seven made 3-pointers in the first three quarters matched their total from the three previous games combined.
“We work on 3s every day in practice, so when we’re hot, we’re hot,” Harris said.
Into the fourth quarter, USC’s reserves salted away the win and held the Gators to the fewest points by an SEC opponent against Carolina since Feb. 2016.
Star of the game: Cuevas-Moore went more than 20 months in between starts, and her presence in the starting five was something of a surprise given that Staley had previously said she would start freshman Destanni Henderson “until the cows come home” and the fact that the Gamecocks had won six in a row.
But it was all part of the plan, Staley explained.
“She’s healthy, and I told her earlier on in the process — her rehabbing and trying to get back to good health — that come SEC time was probably a good target to try to get as healthy as possible, and she’s there health-wise.”
By the third quarter, however, Staley said Cuevas-Moore needed rest — showing that there’s still another level the coach believes her most experienced guard can reach.
“She ran out of gas a little bit, just from the adrenaline of starting and just getting back to her normal self. That took a lot out of her. Physically, yes, the game took something out of her, but emotionally and mentally, that’s draining as well,” Staley said.
Play of the game: That 19-0 run to begin the game was by far the most dominant start Carolina has had all year, powered by three 3-pointers and 80-percent shooting from the floor, while Florida missed its first seven shots and seemed completely flummoxed by USC’s aggressive defense.
South Carolina begins a two-game road swing by traveling to LSU to face the Tigers on Sunday at 5 p.m. The contest will be televised on the SEC Network.