Last season, the matchup of strength versus strength between Stanford’s offense and South Carolina’s defense was won decisively by the Cardinal, in a 76-60 victory that knocked the Gamecocks out of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in the Sweet 16.
There was certainly no shame in losing to a team that reached the Final Four for the fifth straight year. And when No. 1 Stanford visits USC on Wednesday night, there would be no shame in the Gamecocks losing that contest, either. It would be an enormous win for their program, sure, but a loss would by no means portend a quick postseason exit come March.
Still, “I think it’s probably our biggest game since we’ve been here,” said senior guard Ieasia Walker. “I think people know about us. They know us mostly for our defense. I think we can execute offensively a lot better than what other programs think.”
USC is building off last year’s Sweet 16 run, and best season since 2002-03, by starting this season 10-0. The Gamecocks are ranked No. 21, but have yet to play a ranked team. They are limiting opponents to 31.8 percent shooting, but are shooting just 41.4 percent themselves. Stanford shoots 52.6 percent – which is almost the exact percentage it shot last season against USC (52.8). As usual, the Gamecocks also will be at a size disadvantage on Wednesday.
“I think what we lack in height, we gain with speed,” said USC’s biggest regular, 6-foot leading scorer Aleighsa Welch. “It’s kind of like a cancelation factor for us. We don’t really have the height with any of the teams we play. I feel like the height factor, although (Stanford is) a lot taller than most of the teams we’ll play, we’re almost at a disadvantage with it every game we play. I think it’s going to be big to use our speed, attack the height and just kind of make them get up and down the floor a little bit.”
As a freshman last season, Welch came to USC as a highly regarded recruit and benefited from the presence of 6-foot senior Charenee Stephens, who made Welch tougher.
“Charenee is probably one of the strongest players I’ve ever played against,” Welch said. “I had to go against her every day in practice. It kind of prepared me for what to go against. You’re going to find people who are taller than you, but when you’re playing against somebody every day who can make you stronger, it just kind of prepares you for the strength aspect of it.”
Because most of USC’s players have already faced Stanford, the Cardinal is not some team from the West Coast whose style the Gamecocks are unfamiliar with. They’re quite familiar with it. Stopping Stanford’s efficient offense is another story, though. Stanford shot 66.7 percent in the second half of last year’s meeting with USC.
When Welch was asked what she picked up from playing the Cardinal that couldn’t be noticed simply by watching film, she didn’t hesitate.
“How efficient they were,” she said. “When you’re watching on film, you don’t think that like, ‘OK, they’re shooting 66 percent.’ When you play against somebody who is hitting shot after shot after shot, you can’t pick up on film how efficient a team is, how they can knock down open shots, how clean and crisp they can run their offense.
“With us playing them last year, it’s kind of a way to measure what we need to do this year as far as disrupting their offense, more ball pressure, taking away their tendencies, because if you let a team that’s that efficient get what they want, they’re going to capitalize on it. So we have to take away their first and second option and make them score in other ways.”
Stanford’s first option is 6-3 Chiney Ogwumike, who averages 20.9 points.
“Virtually, they’re pretty much the same (as they were last year),” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “Stanford is who they are. They’re a very efficient offensive basketball team.
“We probably didn’t attack more on offense (last year), and that’s what we’ll probably have to do to win this basketball game. We’ve got to push the ball and play a little more in transition and not put so much pressure on our half-court offense, because we’re nothing like what they can do from an offensive standpoint in the half court.”
“(Stanford) can run our offense better than we can run our offense. (Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer) knows where our weaknesses are. Hopefully, just the atmosphere will allow our weaknesses to not be highlighted. We don’t have to play perfect basketball, to say the least. But we do have to play better than what we have been playing to beat the No. 1 team.”