When you bring in the number two scoring defense in the country, you don't always have to play as well as South Carolina did Sunday afternoon in its 79-48 thrashing of North Carolina. The Gamecocks were not near as hot from the field Wednesday afternoon against Savannah State, but the defense was plenty good enough for the Gamecocks to roll to a 65-39 win over Savannah State. With the win the Gamecocks will enter the Christmas break with a 10-2 record, its best start in the Dawn Staley era.
"You could almost anticipate somewhat of a letdown just from coming off a win like North Carolina," Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. "Our players tried to fight through it but we didn't get the results we usually get. Just from an energy standpoint I thought we were a step behind on a couple of plays on both sides of the ball. Luckily we're fortunate enough that we have some depth and we can put some people in that can provide some energy on the floor."
Carolina struggled offensively as much as it had all season early on. Five minutes into the game the Gamecocks found themselves ahead just 6-4. Ieasia Walker drained a three-pointer – the only one the Gamecocks hit in 14 attempts on the day – before Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch got the Gamecocks going offensively. Welch scored the next five points – one on a beautiful assist from Bruner on a three-point play – and Bruner's lay-up gave Carolina a 16-5 lead. Bruner found Welch again for another three-point play and another free throw to stretch the lead to 23-9. Carolina would eventually build a 33-17 lead heading to the half.
"We play well off of each other in practice and in games," Welch said of the chemistry between herself and Bruner. "We noticed that when we first started playing with each other even in pick-up (games) when I first got here. It's just a chemistry thing. We work hard on and it's something that we see. She sees the floor well, I see the floor well, and when we're in the game we look for each other. As each game goes by it gets better and it's going to keep progressing as the season goes on."
The second half would be more of the same as the Gamecocks dominated on the defensive end and did just enough to keep plenty of space between themselves and the Tigers, leading by as many as 33 points late in the contest. Carolina forced 20 turnovers on the afternoon, converting them to 21 points off the turnovers, and limited the Tigers to just 41% shooting. Carolina also dominated on the glass with a 38-19 advantage including a 17-4 advantage on the offensive glass, leading to a 16-2 advantage on second-chance points.
"I think we are still growing," Staley said. "We're progressing which is always a good thing. I don't think we've topped anything off. Our defense has been a mainstay for us twelve games in. Our offense is coming along. It's unfortunate the break is coming when we have been playing pretty solid on the offensive end. We're going to continue to take one game at a time. Looking ahead we do have a pretty formidable opponent in Drexel after the break and that's something we haven't been good at; coming off a break. Hopefully our players will do their break workouts and come back pretty strong and give a good performance in Philadelphia."
Welch would finish with a game-high 15 points, adding five rebounds and a steal in 13 minutes.
"Aleighsa's been playing extremely well," Staley said. "I'm not surprised by what she's been able to do. She's a very intelligent basketball player. She understands conceptually what we're trying to do on both sides of the ball. She's aggressive. She's way ahead of what you'd think a freshman will come in and be able to contribute the way that she has."
With leading scorers La'Keisha Sutton and Markeshia Grant struggling, Walker and Sancheon White took over the scoring load for the guards. Walker finished with four steals, leading to 11 points and also had two assists. White matched her career-high from the Xavier game with 10 points and had two steals and an assist. Grant finished with just six points and Sutton finished with just two after being named SEC Player of the Week for her performances last week.
"When a team is able to not get strong performances from people you anticipate having strong performances, there's growth and depth," Staley said. "Coming into the season I thought the majority of our scoring would come from our perimeter players, but our post players have been pretty solid. The mainstay for what we're trying to do is on the defensive end. That's been pretty consistent. I'm happy they're finally getting it and embracing everything that we're throwing at them and they seem to have some success with it."
Despite the early success the Gamecocks are still a team that has something to prove to the nation as well as Carolina fans. Carolina entered the week just outside of the top 25 and attendance is still fairly low, but that doesn't bother the team.
"We knew the type of team we had coming into the year," Welch said. "We're very underrated and we're aware of that. We don't get the attention we feel like we deserve, but that doesn't bother us when it comes to playing. We're going to come out every night and play our hearts out. Thinking about rankings and where we're going to be in the news doesn't bother us. We don't think about that. We just want to play the basketball Coach Staley wants us to play. As we progress in the season it will come along."
Carolina will return to action next Wednesday in its final non-conference game of the season when it travels to Philadelphia to take on Drexel. The Dragons enters tomorrow's rivalry game with Penn at 5-3 on the season. Carolina will open up conference play on New Year's Day when it hosts Alabama at 3:00.
"I've always liked the underdog position," Staley said. "But when you have 10 wins and a quality win like our win against UNC, you're not going to fall under the radar too much. I just like where their heads are; they just play the current game. They don't get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. We're not going to look ahead. Obviously we have some goals we want to accomplish. We're going to enjoy the journey one game at a time."
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