South Carolina routed Minnesota 98-58 Sunday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena behind a long-range explosion. Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray led the way as South Carolina made 16 threes, the second-most in program history.
With a week off to regroup following a disappointing loss at Duke, USC head coach Dawn Staley promised there would be some adjustments. The first came before tipoff with two changes to the starting lineup. Freshman Tyasha Harris replaced junior Bianca Cuevas-Moore as the starting point guard and sophomore Doniyah Cliney replaced Davis.
The move to Harris was a surprise, but not unexpected. Harris is more consistent than Cuevas-Moore and a strong defender. She fits the Staley model of a steady, pass-first point guard more than Cuevas-Moore, who is very explosive but struggles with turnovers and consistency.
Moving Davis to the bench gave the Gamecocks a steady offensive threat off the bench. The Gamecocks have lacked that this season, whereas it was a key part of the team's Final Four run two years ago. Davis did not seem thrilled about the move, but said it is up to her to play whatever role she is assigned.
"Coach made the decision and when coach makes a decision it's our job to respond," Davis said.
"We need a little firepower coming off the bench," Staley said. "I felt like they gave us that."
The lineup change paid immediate dividends. Harris opened the game with a three-pointer. A few possessions later she found Gray open for three. South Carolina led 8-0 less than three minutes into the game, and Minnesota called timeout. After the stoppage, Aj'a Wilson hit a jumper, Gray added another three, and Alaina Coates added an inside basket to give South Carolina a 15-0 lead.
"If you have an open look, Coach encourages you to shoot," Gray said. "She has confidence in us being able to hit those shots."
Whitney Tinjum finally got the Golden Gophers on the scoreboard with a three-pointer with 5:04 left in the first quarter. But the game story had already been written. Cuevas-Moore and Davis entered the game after the under-five minute media timeout, and Cuevas-Moore almost immediately made a three.
"I thought they did their jobs," Staley said. "Sometimes when you're faced with something different than what the norm is it can take a stab at your character. Those two came off and played inspired basketball, and that's what we want."
The Gamecocks led 24-12 after the first quarter, but turned the game into a blowout in the second quarter. Wilson picked up her second foul with just over eight minutes left in the half and took a seat. It turned out to be something of a blessing-in-disguise as it forced Staley to go with a smaller lineup that had Coates surrounded by four shooters. That lineup was perfectly equipped to counter the Golden Gophers' zone, and the Gamecocks shot 7-10 from three and scored 33 points in the frame to take a 57-27 halftime lead.
Gray scored all 18 of her points in the first half, while Davis made five of her first six three-point attempt. She had 17 first half point and finished with a game-high 22. The hot shooting cooled slightly in the second half, but Coates took control inside. She had 10 of her 16 points in the second half, and also grabbed 11 rebounds for another double-double.
But it was the three-pointers that had everyone talking. South Carolina was 12-20 from behind the arc in the first half. The 12 makes tied the record for most threes by the team in the Staley -era, set on March 5, 2016, during the offensive onslaught of Kentucky during the SEC Tournament. South Carolina made 3-7 threes in the third quarter, but the chances of breaking the program record of 17 took a hit when Staley emptied the bench in the fourth quarter. The reserves went 1-6 in the fourth quarter, with the only make coming from freshman Victoria Patrick. Davis, who was forced back onto the court when Mikiah Herbert Harrigan fouled out, threw up a 30-footer with a few seconds let that would have put South Carolina over the century mark and tied the program record for threes.
It was not just offense for South Carolina, though. After allowing Duke to shoot 50 percent from the field, South Carolina held Minnesota to 28.6 percent from the floor. It won the rebounding battle 45-38 and forced 14 turnovers. The Gamecocks also used a full court press it had not show in a long time. Staley was disappointed in a few defensive lulls, but liked the progress.
"The energy was good," she said. "The execution wasn't as good, but we can work on that."
"I saw us move in the right direction," Staley added.
Notes: Prior to the game, Staley recognized a pair of student assistants who are graduating in December. Staley also recognized Coates for recording 1,000 career rebounds. ... The 16 made threes was a Colonial Life Arena record. ... Wilson finished with 10 points. ... Harris had nine points and six assists. Cuevas-Moore had six points and two steals. ... The Gamecocks' 38 field goals came off a Staley-era record 29 assists. ... South Carolina returns to the court Thursday (Dec. 15) against in-state rival Clemson in a 7 p.m. contest at CLA.