Another loss to Connecticut is in the books for South Carolina women’s basketball, this time by a score of 97-79.
On one hand, those 79 points mark the most the Gamecocks have ever scored in eight meetings with UConn. On the other, the 97 points the Huskies scored are the most USC has allowed under Dawn Staley.
UConn remains a powerhouse and a national title contender, so this road loss likely won’t make a big difference in South Carolina’s ranking or standing with the NCAA tournament selection committee. But for a program still searching for its first victory against Geno Auriemma’s squad, Monday’s game provided some insights for Staley to use the rest of the year and when the Gamecocks and Huskies meet again.
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Staley said coming into the game that she liked how the Gamecocks’ new focus on guard play would throw a new look at UConn, and for the most part her backcourt did a good job of exploiting matchups, especially early on.
The starting trio of junior Tyasha Harris, junior Te’a Cooper and senior Bianca Cuevas-Moore combined to be 7-of-10 from the field in the first quarter, and Cooper and Cuevas-Moore wound up scoring more than 20 points.
While Cooper struggled with foul trouble and a knee injury, when she was on the floor she still managed to be the dynamic playmaker USC fans have seen at times this season. Cuevas-Moore fired away and missed a fair bit, but still played the most minutes of her career and looked as quick as she has been this season. And Harris came up with important baskets when needed and continued to dish out more assists than turnovers.
The three were also key to the team’s 9-for-22 shooting performance from three-point range, a 40.9 percent mark that powered the early lead and kept the final margin from being even bigger.
All told, moving forward, the Gamecocks can learn from this experience, especially come NCAA tournament time.
“When you’re able to play top teams like that, I think it’s a good thing going into the NCAA tournament, the SEC tournament,” Cuevas-Moore said.
South Carolina has struggled all year to overcome stretches of play where the Gamecocks just seem to go dormant — the offense stagnates and the defense becomes porous. That happened again in the third quarter Monday, when UConn outscored USC 29-12.
What’s causing those lapses and how they can be fixed remain the biggest questions surrounding this team. Cuevas-Moore pointed to the squad’s focus in its preparation as a potential solution, but it’s been a concern for a while now, and nothing Staley has tried has resulted in 40 strong minutes.
“You gotta play a good first half and then you gotta play a second half that will equally match that. And we didn’t do that,” Staley said of UConn. “We gotta be able to put four quarters together.”
Of course, playing against a team like UConn and expecting dominance through every quarter seems foolish. As Staley is fond of saying, basketball is a game of runs, and early stretches like Carolina had Monday, making nine of its first 12 shots, cannot realistically last an entire game.
But when the shooting cooled off, the Gamecocks still needed to figure out a way to limit the damage and keep things competitive. That failure really sunk them, Staley said.
“You gotta keep it close with them. You’re not coming back from a big lead in this building and the elements that are surrounding this game. You gotta hold serve and equally punch back when they hit, and if you don’t do that then you’ll end up trying to climb your way back into the game,” Staley said.
What happened to Alexis Jennings?
For all of Staley’s pregame talk about South Carolina’s guards, she also pointed out that her senior forward, at 6-foot-3 and solidly built, would be crucial for Monday’s game. UConn is a relatively undersized team and can be exploited down low in the post, she said.
“Obviously there is some shortcomings when it comes to defending. They defend as a team, they create layers to their defense. But you can get inside. You have an imposing post player, they would have some difficulty matching up,” Staley said.
But Jennings was hardly on the court, and when she was, she was underwhelming — six points and four rebounds in 18 minutes of play. She wasn’t in foul trouble, or injured. She simply didn’t play well.
“She had opportunities. Sometimes you want to impact the game so much that it works against you. I thought she got good touches deep in the paint and she just didn’t finish. And then if you’re off-balance and you fall, they’re pushing back. There was a couple times they got open threes because we were playing four against five, and that’s really hard against a team like UConn,” Staley said.
More than once, Jennings was slow getting back in transition after contact. While she and many Gamecock fans obviously wanted more fouls to be called on that contact, they weren’t, and she failed to adjust. Carolina’s guards weren’t enough to overcome Jennings’s struggles.
South Carolina returns home and resumes conference play on Thursday for a Valentine’s Day matchup with Georgia at 7 p.m. on Monday.