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December 18, 2011
VIDEO: Markeisha Grant, Charenee Stephens, La'Keisha Sutton
VIDEO: Dawn Staley
MYRTLE BEACH - They're here.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley spoke of her team needing a quality win for its postseason resume, even after beginning the year 8-2. Her Gamecocks got that and more on Sunday by crushing No. 18 North Carolina, 79-48.
It wasn't the biggest win in terms of ranking since Staley took over at USC, since she also beat No. 14 Georgia and No. 15 Kentucky over the past two seasons. But the rivalry matchup, the border battle and as Staley said, "the chance to steal some recruits," made Sunday's massacre exactly what Staley desired.
If the Gamecocks (9-2) aren't fully in the game's conscious come Monday, when the new Top 25 is released, then someone's not paying attention.
"Quality win," Staley said. "For the players, they have been working extremely hard and put themselves into position to compete and win, and win in pretty good fashion."
USC played its most complete game of the season, unleashing its potent offense behind the scorching shooting of Markeisha Grant and La'Keisha Sutton, and used its lock-down defense to limit UNC's bevy of talent. The Gamecocks were a blistering 47.1 percent from the field and out-rebounded a team (47-30) that had a clear height advantage, and their defenders were an impenetrable curtain for the third straight game.
The Tar Heels (7-2) came into the game as the country's highest-scoring offense. USC held them to their lowest first-half total and game total of the season, and kept adding to a three-game stretch of opponent misery.
Over the past three games, the Gamecocks have held their opponent to an average of 34 points, and have won by a combined 217-102. So complete was Sunday's rout that USC's halftime total, 50 points, was still enough to beat the Tar Heels' final tally.
USC is only seven points away from being 11-0. But 9-2, with two non-conference games remaining before the start of SEC play, isn't anything to lament.
"I don't think it will be a problem to sustain it," said Grant, who again set the offensive tone right away with the game's first eight points. "We're just going to come out confident. We're challenged in practice, so it makes us produce in the games."
Grant scored 20 and Sutton scored 21, each of the two hardly able to miss. USC, which had built its early-season game plan on going inside and then back out, stayed on the perimeter against UNC's zone and rained jumpers all day.
The Gamecocks leaped ahead 11-0 and kept stretching it. The only troublesome spot came when the Tar Heels began to slice into the lead, going on an 11-4 run right before halftime that made it 36-24.
USC responded with a sizzling 14-3 sprint, keyed by Aleighsa Welch establishing a post presence for a stick-back, Sutton stealing a pass and sinking a shot while being shoved to the ground and Grant hitting another driving layup. Ahead 50-27 at the half, the Gamecocks knew then that it was going to be their night.
All Staley had to do was preach the importance of not taking the Tar Heels too lightly, although she knew USC had plenty of margin for error. It was a moot point - UNC missed its first shot of the second half and Sutton got the ball well beyond the top of the key. She only hesitated for a moment before loading up.
3-pointer. Swish. Ballgame.
"When you have it going, you just have to let our kids play," Staley said. "We just let them play."
Welch scored 10 as the only other player in double figures, but Sancheon White came off the bench for eight points and Charenee Stephens scored six, taking feeds inside and fending off 6-foot-5 center Chay Shegog. Shegog scored a team-high 17 but was the only Tar Heel who could accomplish something; Stephens' aggressive defense and forcing Shegog from her comfort zone had the big center shoot 7-of-16.
"We had to lock down Shegog, she was key to them," Stephens said. "I had to make sure I was doing my work early."
Candace Wood scored 14 but USC, clearly not letting up, wasn't fazed. The Gamecocks ran the Tar Heels out of the Myrtle Beach Convention Center for their third-largest win over a ranked opponent in school history.
When it was over, after the starters had been taken out so they could lead a standing ovation from the USC fans who made the trip, the Gamecocks huddled at mid-court and passed the thanks around. Then they went into the stands, high-fiving and hugging family and friends.
Lot of season to go, but the Gamecocks have arrived.
"One of our key points to the game was, 'Calm, cool and confident,'" Grant said. "This is a big one."
"Biggest?," questioned Stephens. "Right now, it feels the best. It feels good to finally get this win and show them that we came to play."
USC hosts Savannah State at noon on Wednesday.
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