Offense wins games, defense wins championships.
The South Carolina women's basketball team proved that to be the case Thursday night in a 65-55 victory over 24th-ranked Vanderbilt. The Commodores entered the game the most prolific three-point shooting team in the nation, but it was second-ranked scoring defense of the Gamecocks that won out as they limited the Commodores to just 1-of-6 from behind the arc. Gabby Smith's three-pointer with 6:58 left in the game was the only one of the night for Vanderbilt.
"Our players were committed to the game plan," head coach Dawn Staley said. "It's not hard when you're committed to it; you'd rather them take inside shots or shots inside the arc. I thought Keisha (Sutton) did a terrific job on their leading scorer. I just thought it was a great, executed game plan. Our players really focused in and got the win."
Vanderbilt's leading scorer, Christina Foggie, was averaging nearly 18 points coming into the game and shooting 50% from behind the arc. Foggie finished with nine points and did not attempt a three-pointer.
"As a team I think this was our best effort because we stayed together for 40 whole minutes," Sutton said. "I think we played disciplined defense and really got after it and we locked into our game plan, which was to take the three's and (Stephanie) Holzer away."
Carolina also did a great job of getting Holzer out of the game. Holzer was saddled with foul trouble and played just 19 minutes, scoring 10 points and grabbing five rebounds.
"Our game plan was to get to their bench and attack their post players," Aleighsa Welch said. "We know the offense revolves around Holzer and that's really one of the things we stressed was to try and get her out of the game early and try to get them out of their offensive flow."
Welch did just that, netting a career-high 19 points off the bench to lead all scorers and grabbed seven rebounds, six of them on the offensive end.
"I just wanted to attack the glass as much as I can," Welch said. "I come out with that mindset every game; to go out and outhustle somebody or get to the ball first. I don't think about the points aspect of it; I just think about giving my team a second chance at getting another bucket and every bucket counted tonight. I wanted to get everything I could with rebounds and second-chance points."
The two teams battled early on with Vanderbilt taking an early 10-6 just over five minutes into the game. Carolina would then force eight straight turnovers as the Gamecocks went on an 11-0 run to take a 17-10 lead thanks in large part to what has become a common theme; Ashley Bruner and Welch coming off the bench to spark the defense.
"I didn't think she could come in and have this immediate effect in long stretches," Staley said of the freshman Welch. "There's probably only once she looked like a freshman, and that was at Drexel. She's smart; I didn't know how smart of a player she was. Her ability to be a sponge – anything that we give her she picks it up and she plays it as if it's second nature. She's very coachable and I'm very happy for her and happy that she chose the University of South Carolina."
Vanderbilt quickly closed it to 18-16 and would later tie the game at 25-25 on a Tiffany Clarke three-point play with just under four minutes left in the first half. That's all the Gamecocks would allow Vandy to do as they closed the half on a 10-0 run to take a 35-25 lead to the locker room.
After trading baskets early in the second half, Vanderbilt made a run to get back in the game. Carolina would go on a scoreless drought over four and a half minutes as Vanderbilt slowly crept back into the game. A pair of Jasmine Lister free throws would draw Vandy to within 42-36 with 12:27 to play. A pair of Sutton baskets stretched the lead back to 10 and would eventually take their largest lead of the game, 52-38 with 8:10 left and would keep the lead stable the remainder of the game.
Carolina, now 2-0 in the SEC for the first time in 10 seasons and 13-2 overall, will now take its show on the road. The Gamecocks will head to Florida Sunday and LSU next Thursday before returning home on the 22nd to host eleventh-ranked Kentucky.
"In this league it's hard to get wins on the road no matter how you look at it. It's that much of importance to take care of home," Staley said. We put the emphasis on these first two games because we knew looking ahead. We have to give our players a mental picture of what's ahead of us; we don't want to get ahead of ourselves but you certainly tell them our next four out of five games are on the road, and the one home game is against Kentucky, one of the top teams in this league. We found success in defending. Hopefully we can hit some shots on the road."
Following the home contest with Kentucky, it's back on the road for two more, traveling to Auburn and then up to Nashville for the rematch with the Commodores.
"Coming into this season we said we needed to take care of our house and we've done a pretty good job of that," Sutton said. "It's a battle every game in the SEC, especially playing away. We're going to have the same mindset, locking in on the game plan, and staying together for 40 minutes."
Gamecocks sink Commodores, 65-55
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