A large reason for South Carolina’s women’s basketball success over the past two seasons – the fourth and fifth for coach Dawn Staley in Columbia – has been the defensive intensity that Staley instilled in her players, a process that wasn’t always easy.
This season, the Gamecocks led the Southeastern Conference in points and field goal percentage allowed per game in league play (52.8 points and 37.3 percent). They were a far less effective offensive team, and they ranked second-to-last in the league in points scored per game (57.8) and 11th out of 14 teams in field goal percentage (36.9).
Coming off last year’s Sweet 16 trip, they enter Saturday’s NCAA tournament opener against No. 13 seed South Dakota State in Boulder, Colo., as a confident defensive group. But Staley believes offense could play a significant role in whether the Gamecocks avoid an upset.
“I don’t know if we’ll hit a shot or a free throw, but I know we’ll defend and we’ll disrupt a little bit,” she said. “I think it’s going to come down to us being able to knock down shots. I believe (South Dakota State) will probably look at some of the games in which we didn’t fare well, and probably duplicate some of the things that didn’t go well.”
Rarely did things not go well for the Gamecocks this season, when they went 24-7 and 11-5 in the SEC regular season.
But let’s examine their seven losses, and how their offense performed in those games …
Stanford – 49 points, 28.6 percent
Tennessee – 53 points, 29 percent
Georgia – 40 points, 34 percent
Texas A&M – 48 points, 28.1 percent
Kentucky – 74 points, 56 percent
Missouri – 58 points, 32.8 percent
Texas A&M (SEC tournament) – 52 points, 35.1 percent
If you add up USC’s 16 SEC regular season games, along with two in the SEC tournament and the Stanford game, the Gamecocks averaged 58 points and shot 37 percent.
In those 19 games, USC went 12-7. In the wins, the Gamecocks averaged 60.7 points and shot 38.9 percent. In the above listed seven losses, they averaged 53.4 points and shot 34 percent.
Besides the Kentucky game, USC’s offense no-showed in its losses. It’s hard to beat anybody when you don’t shoot 30 percent.
But USC can afford to be a flawed-at-times offensive team with the way Staley has taught her players to defend.
“It’s all about experience,” she said. “When we came here five years ago, it was all new to everyone. So anything that we did, we probably got fought on every single step of the way. But when they find success, kids are tangible beings. Winning and being in the spotlight is something that they like to do. When they find that they’re successful with things, it’s a little easier to coach, it’s a little easier to motivate, it’s a little easier to wake up and practice every single day. I think we’ve become a better practice team, and that’s why you’re seeing the results that we’ve gotten off the past couple years.”
For a team that plays as intensely on defense as USC, the altitude in Boulder could be an issue.
“I played in Colorado before (for United States Olympic trials),” said freshman guard Tiffany Mitchell. “So I know it’s going to be hard to adjust as a team because we’re not practicing (there) and we can’t get in Colorado shape in three days. But hopefully that doesn’t affect us.
“We’re not used to playing with that thin air, so a couple times down the court, you’re going to be kind of out of breath. I feel like we’re going to be making a lot more subs and trying to get people’s winds back. It’s going to play a part in the game.”
After Wednesday’s practice, as USC prepared to travel to Boulder first thing Thursday morning, Staley said she wasn’t sure about how the altitude would impact the game. But the Gamecocks are definitely doing all they can to prepare for it.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I think at this point, we’ve been stressing to our players to hydrate not only in practice, but outside of practice. I think that we can control a little bit more now that we’re about to hit the road and we’ve got a long couple of days in Boulder. So hopefully our medical staff can work their magic to where it won’t have an effect on the way we play.”