Gamecocks advance in tournament without Bianca Cuevas-Moore and a lot of Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
Dawn Staley wanted defensive pressure and veteran leadership.
She got a plenty of both as No. 4 seed South Carolina cruised through the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament on Friday, thrashing No. 13 seed Belmont, 74-52, in Halton Arena.
Two weeks after being upset in the SEC tournament quarterfinals by Arkansas, USC (22-9) used withering defensive pressure in the second quarter and explosive offense in the third quarter to cruise by the Bruins (26-7).
All three of the team’s captains — junior guard Tyasha Harris, senior guard Doniyah Cliney and senior forward Alexis Jennings — scored in double figures, as did junior guard Te’a Cooper, who led all scorers with 15 points.
“That we dominated the game. We competed from minute one to minute 40,” Harris said of Staley’s message after the contest. Harris also called it the most complete game South Carolina has played all season.
Belmont seized its largest lead of the game just over two minutes in, 6-2. From there however, the Gamecocks imposed their will with an 12-2 run, powered by four points each from Jennings and Cliney. Inside, the Bruins had no answer for Carolina’s bigger, more physical players.
Into the second quarter, USC’s defensive pressure, which had been sorely lacking against Arkansas, began to impose itself. On the very first Belmont possession, the Gamecocks forced a shot clock violation. It was the first of seven turnovers the Bruins had in the quarter, including another shot clock violation, compared to just one made field goal, a 3-pointer with 3:23 left before the half.
“We had great practices after our SEC tournament exit, and they were very much like what you saw out there,” Staley said.” So it was good to see us be able to transition from a practice to a game and for an entire 40 minutes. It wasn’t perfect basketball, but it was the style, the energy and the grittiness we need to continue to play at a high level and win at a high level.”
Those three points are tied for the fewest South Carolina has ever allowed in a quarter.
“We knew that we wanted to turn them over, make them dribble more,” Cliney said. “(Staley) just made it an emphasis to just stay up in them, stay in between them and the basket. If they dribble in, stay down, stay disciplined, and if they shoot, just make it hard for them. Every shot they take, make it hard. And that’s what we did today.”
On offense, however, the Gamecocks couldn’t quite blow the game wide open, turning the ball over five times after not doing so once in the first quarter. Jennings led the way with nine points and seven rebounds as USC led 29-16 at the break.
“For us to still be in the game at halftime, scoring three points in the second quarter, was a minor miracle,” Belmont coach Bart Brooks said.
After halftime, the Bruins got two quick buckets, enough to remind Gamecock fans of other poor third quarters the team has played this year, a season-long concern.
“It was just like, ‘Aw, no, no, no, not today. Pick it up ladies, come on,’” Cooper said of Belmont’s quick second-half start. “We had to just refocus and fix what we were doing wrong on those two shots and that’s what we did.”
The Gamecock offense then proceeded to explode, scoring more points (31) than it did in the entire first half and crushing the Bruins in both points in the paint and points off turnovers.
“We usually come out in the second half struggling in the third quarter, but this third quarter, I think we shot something like 81 percent? It was pretty ridiculous,” Cooper said. “So we ended that little issue, so we feel really good.”
From there on out, the Gamecocks cruised, with the lead never dipping below 20 points in the fourth quarter.
Junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore were suspended for a half and the entire game, respectively, for a violation of team rules, Staley said.
Next: South Carolina will play No. 5 Florida State in the second round Sunday in Charlotte at a time to be determined.
Ell. Harmeyer 2-8 4-4 9, Wright 2-9 0-0 4, Maggard 5-11 0-0 13, Muensterman 1-6 0-0 3, Roy 3-4 1-2 7, Chinn 4-8 1-2 10, Cook 0-1 0-0 0, Culbertson 0-1 0-0 0, Han. Harmeyer 0-0 0-0 0, Kinney 1-4 3-3 6, Totals 18-52 9-11 52.
SOUTH CAROLINA (22-9)
Jennings 4-6 4-5 12, Cliney 5-5 0-0 10, Cooper 7-12 0-0 15, Harris 4-8 2-2 12, Henderson 1-4 0-0 3, Grissett 0-1 0-2 0, Herbert Harrigan 2-2 1-2 5, Saxton 2-4 0-0 4, Wesolek 0-2 0-0 0, Williams 1-2 0-0 2, Jackson 4-8 0-0 8, Perry 1-2 0-0 3, Totals 31-56 7-11 74.
Halftime. USC 29-16. 3-Point Goals: Belmont 7-25 (Ell. Harmeyer 1-4, Wright 0-2, Maggard 3-8, Muensterman 1-5, Chinn 1-3, Kinney 1-3), South Carolina 5-15 (Cooper 1-3, Harris 2-5, Henderson 1-4, Jackson 0-2, Perry 1-1). Assists: Belmont 11 (Roy 8), South Carolina 14 (Harris 6). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Belmont 22 (Ell. Harmeyer 5), South Carolina 38 (Jennings 9). Total Fouls: Belmont 13, South Carolina 16. Technical Fouls: None.