Who: No. 21 South Carolina (11-4, 3-0 SEC) vs. LSU (11-4, 2-1 SEC)
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13
Where: Maravich Cneter, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Watch: SEC Network
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Series history: LSU has won 22 of the 34 meetings between the two programs, but South Carolina has won the last eight, including the last three in Baton Rouge.
Last meeting: At Colonial Life Arena, the Gamecocks held off the Lady Tigers for a 57-48 win on Senior Night. A’ja Wilson had 27 points and 24 rebounds.
Junkyard defense: LSU features one of the nation’s best defenses — the Lady Tigers rank fifth in the NCAA in points allowed per game, seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions and 14th in opponents’ turnover rate.
They accomplish that, according to coach Dawn Staley, by switching up their defensive looks in order to fluster teams.
“They got the athletes, so they’re pressuring the ball a little bit more, three-quarter court, they’re trapping in the halfcourt, they’re junking it up, and then they like to play fast in transition,” Staley said.
The Gamecocks have been solid, if not spectacular, in holding onto the ball this year, even in the team’s recent seven-game win streak. Over that stretch, Staley’s squad averaged 15.6 turnovers per game, a mark that would rank about 130th nationally. But Staley is confident that her team will have the necessary poise.
“We stick to what we do, whether man or zone — if you’re definitive in what sets you want to run, you just run through them and stay organized,” Staley said. “ ... We have to continue to move the basketball, continue to share it, not turn it over and knock down some shots.”
Catching their breath: In the first eight games of its season, USC played four teams that were ranked at one point this year. Over the next seven, there was just one ranked opponent, and the Gamecocks have taken care of business in that stretch.
Given that it had been a long time since Carolina’s record stood at .500 so late in the season, this current winning streak was a chance for the team to take a breath, redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings said. Now, though the Gamecocks enter the heart of SEC play and a tough series of games — four of their next five opponents were NCAA tournament teams last year, and three are currently ranked.
And Baton Rouge is not an easy place to win; The Lady Tigers have won 23 of their last 26 games at home.
“It’s always a tough place,” Staley acknowledged.
However, Staley’s main message to the team after practice Friday was that it will be difficult to win anywhere away from home in the SEC.
“I talked to them today about just getting a road win in our league. It doesn’t matter what records are, if you don’t bring your A game every time you step on the floor, you could take a loss whether it’s on the road or at home. I think for us, we just have to stay in the moment and stay in character for us,” Staley said.
Progressing nicely: The seven-game win streak the Gamecocks are on has also highlighted the slow but steady progress South Carolina has made over the course of the season, according to Staley. Much of that she credits to the team’s improving health, but the tough early schedule also helped.
“I think playing a tough schedule is always going to make you mature a little bit quicker. I just had anticipated us being a lot more healthy playing that type of schedule, but if you look back on it, it’s helped us focus a little bit better, it helped us realize we have to lean on different people at different times,” Staley said.
Now that the Gamecocks are winning, Jennings described the morale of the team as very high, which will be crucial against an LSU team that A’ja Wilson typically dominated — in five meetings, she averaged 19 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. Without her, it will take a coordinated effort to down the Lady Tigers.
“I think we’re really confident, everyone’s really finding their role,” Jennings said. “Our post players are shooting the ball really well, so are our guards. That gives us great confidence.”
South Carolina projected starting lineup: Junior guard Tyasha Harris, redshirt junior guard Te’a Cooper, redshirt senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings, junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
LSU projected starting lineup: Sophomore guard Khayla Pointer, senior guard Shanice Norton, junior guard Jaelyn Richard-Harris, junior forward Ayana Mitchell, sophomore center Faustine Aifuwa
South Carolina key stats: Tyasha Harris has struggled with inconsistency this season but flashed a solid all-around game against Florida with 10 points, eight assists and three steals. She leads USC in plus/minus in conference play, and her assist-to-turnover ratio is 25th in the country. ... The Gamecocks are currently averaging more 3-pointers made and attempted than they have in any season under Dawn Staley. ... USC’s field goal percentage of 42.3 currently ranks 10th in the SEC, which would mark the team’s lowest league rank since 2012-2013.
LSU key stats: The Lady Tigers turn over their opponents on nearly a quarter of their possessions and force them into one of the worst assisted shot rates in the country (17th-lowest in the NCAA). ... LSU has one of the lowest 3-point rates in the country and gets 17.5 percent of its points from beyond the arc, 336th in the nation. Conversely, it gets 20.4 percent of its points from the free throw line, a top-75 mark in the country. ... Ayana Mitchell is shooting 58.7 percent from the field this season, one of the top marks in the SEC.