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January 15, 2013
South Carolina is actually ahead of where it was last year, when it comes to scoring the basketball. The Gamecocks were eighth in the SEC with 61.2 points per game in last season's 25-win campaign; through 17 games this year, USC is averaging 61.5, but that figure is 13th in the 14-team SEC.
The difference is not having anybody who, when the No. 19 Gamecocks absolutely have to have a bucket, will score that bucket. They don't have La'Keisha Sutton anymore.
Besides being USC's second-leading scorer last year, Sutton's contribution was her fearlessness. Able to drive the lane and score despite giving up several inches to opposing posts, or unafraid to take the game-tying 3-pointer, USC always knew that when the game got tight, Sutton was going to have the ball in her hands. She demanded it, and the rest of the Gamecocks knew that she'd likely make something happen, which is why they never hesitated in giving her the ball for the clutch shots.
Knowing that it would be there if needed, USC could play relaxed and work its inside and outside game. As it turned out, Sutton and Markeisha Grant led the scoring while forwards Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch could patrol the paint for putback buckets, or be the first offensive options if the game dictated that. The Gamecocks could come at opponents in a variety of ways.
This year, USC has only lost three games and has one of the best defenses in the country at its disposal. But points are getting increasingly harder to come by; two of the Gamecocks' three losses were because they simply couldn't get the big basket, and the other was because they went for a long second-half stretch without getting any baskets.
"I guess part of it is their defense, part of it is us not having confidence to just shoot it," coach Dawn Staley said after Sunday's 42-40 loss at Georgia. "Not even make it, just to shoot it. But it's going to come down to the same thing - being able to make plays and being able to make shots."
USC hit one field goal in the final 13 minutes of the Georgia game. The looks were there - the Gamecocks lost count of how many shots hit the side, front or back of the rim but didn't go through it. The shooters were there - USC's best player of late, Sancheon White, surely wasn't afraid to let it go, although the results were horrific.
But despite the turnovers and great defense (the 42 points was the least amount that Georgia has ever scored in a win in its 40-year history), the Gamecocks couldn't find that last shot that may have meant the win. The offense, stymied by the Lady Bulldogs' zone, reverted to throwing it around the perimeter, stagnant movement in the paint and contested entry passes, leading to contested shots.
"Kind of forcing shots, and I don't think we were ready to knock down the outside shots, which they forced us to do," Ieasia Walker said. "That's not our strongest point right now."
It's difficult to imagine Sutton not taking matters into her hands right there, driving the lane, getting the free-throw line. But Sutton is not there.
What's in her place are great players who aren't used to doing what Sutton did. Walker has that ability, but her focus (as it should be) has been on running the offense and getting the ball into Bruner and Welch in the post. White is an outside shooter. Tiffany Mitchell, still learning as a freshman starter, has the skill to do it but doesn't necessarily have the freedom right now to demand the ball and make something happen.
To ask a player to step out of her comfort zone after 17 games would probably do more harm than good right now. The Gamecocks are built on their players' strengths - great defense and doing what each player is specialized to do on offense. To throw something completely different in at this point may cause irreparable harm to the team's postseason chances.
But the games don't get easier. USC, if it hopes to challenge Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas A&M for conference supremacy, will have to be able to answer explosive scorers. The question, as it usually does, comes down to how many 40- or 50-point allowed games can a team win without being able to score 40 or 50 itself.
Sutton wasn't a 50-point scorer, but she could get the two when it mattered. USC, with some consistent scorers, are just looking for the two that she could provide.
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