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November 9, 2012
Some good, some bad. About what a season-opener should feature.
What Dawn Staley liked was that her fifth South Carolina team, with five newcomers who will all play a lot of minutes, was challenged and responded.
The Gamecocks turned an Elon surge in the final 10 minutes of the first half into a 10-2 closing run on Friday, then doused the Phoenix's upset hopes in the second half by tightening their defense and swarming the offensive glass. USC won going away, 77-44, and promised a different look for the season.
Long deprived of steady play in the paint, USC doggedly stayed away from its guard-heavy attack of the past. Bigs Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch were targeted early and kept producing throughout, while point guard Ieasia Walker was content to work the passing lanes and score when the Gamecocks absolutely needed her to.
"Every day in practice, we work on passing into the post," Walker said. "We have some more height this year and we have some more post players that are strong and have moves. We also can drive to the basket. The disadvantage that we create is inside."
Bruner finished with a game-high 15 points and had three rebounds, all on the offensive end, where she sometimes cleaned up her own misses. Welch, displaying a quicker step than her freshman season, contributed three steals to go with her nine points and nine rebounds, and brought the scant Colonial Life Arena crowd to its feet early with a picked-off pass that turned into a fast-break layup.
USC (1-0) scored on all but one of its possessions in the first nine minutes before Elon (0-1) regrouped. The Phoenix began pressing the Gamecocks and it resulted in several turnovers, cutting the deficit to seven points.
USC was jump-started by freshman Tiffany Davis, though. Davis aced two free throws, then wrestled a pass away from Shon Redmond at mid-court, turning it into a layup. Then Walker picked up a loose ball, leaped before heading out-of-bounds and saw Davis running free at the top of her jump. She threw and Davis scored just before the half ended to open a 41-25 lead.
Elon never recovered. The Phoenix ran out of gas in the second half as the Gamecocks' defense rose. Elon was scoreless for the final five minutes of the game as USC finished with 53 rebounds (29 offensive) and 14 steals.
"When we substituted early, we lost some momentum," Staley said. "In the game of basketball, you've got to try to find it. We're learning our different combinations. We've just got to figure out what they are."
The Gamecocks were able to use the game's final nine minutes to play the five newcomers at once. Davis's initial spurt guided her to six points and five steals, Asia Dozier had 10 rebounds to offset an 0-for-8 performance from the field, Khadijah Sessions had eight points and starter Tiffany Mitchell had nine. Wilka Montout had two rebounds.
Overall, USC plowed Elon 52-18 in the lane and had 22 second-chance points. The Gamecocks seemed to be saying that they can always go back to the old approach, of Walker or another guard driving the lane with 10 on the shot clock, but that's a last resort. The post game will be emphasized this year.
"Ashley is one that we're very comfortable giving her the ball, because she's pretty dynamic, as far as her footwork," Staley said. "She's pretty savvy, being undersized, and she's been in our system. She really knows what we want."
USC also dealt with what will be a season-long issue. Sancheon White hit the deck hard in the first half and sat out for the remainder, although she returned to play the second half. Mitchell had to sit out for a brief spell with a hamstring pull but returned.
The Gamecocks only have 10 players, with Tina Roy out indefinitely while recovering from ACL surgery in August. The rotation they play keeps everybody in the games, but any serious injuries may hinder them.
And then there was the other. The Gamecocks were the worst team in the country last year in free-throw shooting percentage (No. 336), and Friday was a continuation. USC hit 15-of-30 from the line.
"It is pretty much the same-old, same-old," Staley said. "But we are doing things. We got a couple of offensive rebounds from the free-throw line situation. We practice them. I think individuals are going to have to come in, get some time in between classes."
Overall, a very solid win. USC's newcomers made some mistakes, but the veterans handled it until the game was back under control. The Gamecocks logged the victory, then prepared for a short turnaround before a trip to Louisiana Tech on Monday.
"I think at times, they looked like freshmen today," said Walker, who had 13 points to go with her four assists and three steals. "We weren't shooting as well from the outside today. They're going to make freshman mistakes, but I think at times when they played with the upperclassmen, they did better. It's growing pains. They'll get better as the season goes on."
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