Gamecocks dominate Clemson 85-31, set up Stanford showdown
CLEMSON, S.C. — Dawn Staley called her shot.
After watching her team shoot just 27.4 percent from 3-point range through wins in the first two games of the season, she addressed the flaw with her top-ranked Gamecocks on Wednesday.
“I know we’re not very efficient, but we’re trying to take good shots,” Staley said. “We’re aware of what’s good and what’s bad.”
Just over 24 hours later, her team found — and knocked down — those good shots in a 85-31 win at Clemson. South Carolina (3-0) made its first six 3-pointers and went 7-of-12 total from beyond the arc as it won its 12th consecutive game in the rivalry and handed Clemson (3-1) its first loss of the season.
"Clemson played us a lot differently than we've seen in a long time," Staley said post-game. "So I thought that we had to adjust to that, becuase we're so used to people sagging on us. We definitely had to figure out a way to jolt ourselves into being pressured that way."
With the win, South Carolina took a 34-33 lead over Clemson in the rivalry all-time, and winning the tug-of-war against Clemson has not been an easy feat for the program. This is the first time the Gamecocks have ever pulled in front of Clemson in the overall series, and they held the Tigers to their fewest points ever in the series in the process.
Zia Cooke led the way in scoring with 15 points, powered by 12 in the first half on a perfect 4-of-4 shooting, and Aliyah Boston chipped in with a dozen points. Freshman Ashlyn Watkins came off the bench and scored in double-figures for the second time in her three-game career, dropping in 14 points including an electric late dunk.
In its final tune-up game before a shutdown against No. 2 Stanford on Sunday, South Carolina wasted no time putting the Tigers to bed early. Staley did make a change to her starting lineup for the first time this season, starting Kierra Fletcher over Raven Johnson at point guard. Fittingly, it was Fletcher who scored the first points of the game. The ball-handling minutes still ended up mostly split; Fletcher played 12 minutes and Johnson 20.
A blistering 71.4 shooting percentage in the first quarter saw South Carolina manage to break a tough man-to-man Clemson defense, a contrast to the zone it saw on Friday in the win over Maryland.
"They did a good job at speeding us up," Cooke said about Clemson's defense. "We had errors, and there were times where we had turnovers back-to-back because we weren't really playing our game at the time."
Cooke, Johnson and Brea Beal all canned 3-pointers in the first quarter to get the outside shooting monkey off the team’s back early, and it only continued in the second quarter as the defense turned up the dial to create opportunities. South Carolina won the second quarter 25-5 to eliminate any doubt, keyed by an explosive performance from Laeticia Amihere off the bench. The senior forward scored a quick seven points within minutes of taking the floor on 3-of-5 shooting.
If there was one negative for South Carolina heading into one of its toughest tests of the regular season, it was those turnovers. Cooke brought up The aggressive, active Clemson defense led to some sloppy passes and inconsistent handles, with three first half offensive fouls only hurting the cause. Total it up and you get 20 South Carolina turnovers, now something of a concerning trend after the offense gave away 20 possessions at Maryland.
"I thought at times we just didn't make the right basketball decisions," Staley said. "Somteimes we forced things a little bit too much, sometimes we charged into people, just bad basketball decisions that Clemson forced us into."
The issue was contagious, with 12 out of the 13 players to hit the court turning the ball over at least once. They were spread out, too.. Four turnovers in the first quarter, five in the second, six in the third and then five more to close the night.
And late in the game with the outcome already well in hand, Watkins threw down a dunk that lit up a mostly garnet-clad crowd behind the South Carolina bench and forced one more Clemson timeout.
For Watkins, it was a more subdude moment. She dunked consistently in high school, to the point where she called it "just something I usually do," post-game.
But for her teammates it was much more. It was the first in-game dunk in program history, the type of ferocious exclmation point to springboard the team into a massive trip to Stanford on Sunday.
"I walked up to her and was like, 'do you even know what you just did?' She's just so non-chalant," Cooke said. "I look up to stuff like that. That was my first time ever seeing a girl dunk in a game live in action. It was definitely shocking to me to see."
In a season-long scrapbook, the Watkins leaping up with her right hand for a dunk, bench leaping in a combination of celebration and reverenve behind her, was one of the early snapshots to remember.
Now they will attempt to create an even bigger one on Sunday.
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