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January 29, 2012
It's good to have height in basketball, but in the women's game, height often comes with a drawback. Too much height directly translates into not enough speed.
Which is why South Carolina, blessed with runners up and down the bench, was hardly fazed by Mississippi State's 6-foot-5 Catina Bett and 6-4 Martha Alwal on Sunday. The Gamecocks merely pushed the two big-uns out of the paint, locked down on leading scorer Diamber Johnson and turned their speedsters loose on the fast break.
The result - seven straight possessions with points that turned a manageable eight-point game at halftime into a 69-43 rout. USC finished a two-game homestand 2-0 and won its third straight, improving to 17-5, 6-3 SEC as it prepares to flip the calendar page to the make-or-break month of February.
"We're feeling really good about ourselves," coach Dawn Staley said. "Our plan going in was to keep everybody honest. We made a concerted effort to give them different looks."
Nothing's decided by a long shot, especially with No. 7 Tennessee waiting on Thursday to begin a stretch of four road games over the next six. But the Gamecocks could be feeling much, much worse, after holding serve at home with two blowouts and getting back to the frenetic run 'n' gun style that Staley loves to see.
Again paced by guards La'Keisha Sutton and Markeisha Grant, who combined for 32 points, USC ran past the Bulldogs' assemblage of height. Posts Ashley Bruner, Aleighsa Welch and Charenee Stephens couldn't out-jump Bett or Alwal, so they simply pushed them out of the paint and forced MSU (13-8, 3-5) to beat them in other ways.
The Bulldogs had early success with backdoor cuts, but with Johnson contained and not hitting (averaging 17.2 points, Johnson scored a mere two on 1-of-11 shooting), they were held to Porsha Porter trying to win the game by herself. She scored 19, but nobody else had more than six.
"I think I have a little bit more of an advantage, strength-wise," said Stephens, who scored six with three rebounds and had no fouls. "You just have to do that, being confident in your strength."
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks attacked the basket, putting MSU's bigs in foul trouble and getting surprising production from the free-throw stripe. Then after only hitting one 3-pointer in the first half, USC started the second half ahead 30-22 and went to work.
Leading 33-23, Sutton stroked a 3 for a 13-point lead and USC immediately got another turnover. That became Bruner finding Grant for an uncontested 3, which led to Alwal's soft jumper.
USC paid no mind to the too-little, too-late J, as Grant took a steal and went coast-to-coast. The Bulldogs called timeout to re-set, then sat and watched as a missed shot and two turnovers became Ieasia Walker to Bruner, Grant to Sutton and Walker to Sutton in an eye-blinking 6-0 spurt.
The lead swelled to as much as 32 before the Gamecocks began milking the clock. The bench was cleared with 4:37 to play.
"Definitely, defense was the key to the offense," Grant said. "We changed our ball-screen defense and it led to more offense."
Afterward, it was a case of having too many thank-yous. Sutton and Grant led the offense and also combined for four steals, part of MSU's 16 turnovers. Bruner attacked the basket and got three of her five points from the free-throw line, a season-long sore spot. Freshman Elem Ibiam came off the bench for six points and six rebounds. USC shot 49.1 percent as a team.
And then there was Walker, who scored a mere four points but had five rebounds and six assists. Assigned to shut down Johnson, Walker was in her face all afternoon and took her completely out of the equation.
"I thought Ieasia played extremely well," Staley said. "We didn't want Diamber to get going. We like to cut the head off and the rest will go with it. (Walker) played tight defense like we expect."
USC enters the most crucial month of the season having been mentioned in each of the past four Top 25 polls, but only ranked in one. Still, the Gamecocks' record has them right there in consideration with seven games to go, and the road gets no easier.
Yet Staley knows that USC can afford to slightly stub its toe, which may be welcome considering Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia still dot the schedule. But the Gamecocks are also back to playing the way they were when they recorded 10 wins before Christmas - loose, confident, dangerous.
"Tennessee is Tennessee," Staley said. "It's an easy game to get up for. Fortunately for us, we've won our last couple of games. I think, preparation-wise, it's going to come down to what we do Tuesday and Wednesday to prepare for a team like Tennessee. You're not just preparing for a team, you're preparing for a tradition."
NOTE: Courtney Newton, who sustained a head injury against Ole Miss, dressed but did not play. Newton seemed alert while watching pre-game warm-ups and while on the bench during the game, but was held out as a precaution. Bruner started in her place.
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