No. 1 South Carolina leaning on its defense in NCAA tourney

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — No. 1 South Carolina has leaned heavily on its defense in the women’s NCAA Tournament.

There’s no option , Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said, if her players want to stay on the floor and South Carolina wants to keep advancing.

“They know they’re going to have play defense,” Staley explained, “or else the likelihood of them playing a whole lot is slim to none.”

Message received.

The Gamecocks (31-2) were third in the country — and tops among the Power Five and Big East conferences — in fewest points allowed at 50.2 this season. They’ve taken it to history-making levels in the tournament.

South Carolina, the event’s overall top seed, limited to Howard to 21 points in an opening round game, the fewest points ever allowed in an NCAA Tournament game. The Gamecocks followed that by holding Miami to 33 points in the second round to reach their eighth straight Sweet 16.

Neither Howard nor Miami made a field goal in the second quarter against the Gamecocks.

Things ramp up in the Greensboro Region on Friday night with South Carolina going against fifth-seeded North Carolina (25-6), which was third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring this season at 73.5 points a game.

“You need to be able to stop the other team in scoring,” South Carolina All-American Aliyah Boston said. “So we take pride in that, making sure we’re getting defensive stops.”

Particularly when the Gamecocks’ offense has struggled in recent games. They’ve shot 36% or less the past three games, including making 18 of 61 shots in the win over Miami last Sunday. Against Howard, South Carolina took 79 shots to score 79 points.

Defensive success is essential, Staley said, “because when we’ve shot the way we’ve shot the last two games, or four out of five, or whatever it is, you never know, you know?”

Defense has long been part of Staley’s DNA. The former college national player of the year at Virginia 30 years ago, three-time Olympic gold medalist and fiery WNBA pro was a relentless defender.

She led the Cavaliers in steals all four of her seasons from 1989-92 and ranks second all-time in that category at the school with 454.

“I think defense is a decision,” Staley said. “You’re either going to do it or you’re not.”

South Carolina’s done it this season with its dominant frontcourt.

The team led the country with 255 blocked shots and had three players among the nation’s top 100 in that area — the 6-foot-5 Boston is eighth in the country with 85 blocks, 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso is 74th with 45 and 6-2 Victaria Saxton is 82nd with 44 blocks.

Staley’s demanded defense since taking over a sagging program before the 2008-09 season. Only twice in the past 12 years have the Gamecocks given up more than 60 points a game.

South Carolina’s has not wavered this season against the country’s best teams. The Gamecocks allowed just 55 points a game and went 11-0 against ranked opponents. Their impressive performances includes wins over NCAA top seeds North Carolina State (66-57) in November and Stanford (65-61) in December.

Tar Heels coach Courtney Banghart has spent the week breaking down South Carolina’s defense and found little room to move. She said the Gamecocks post players are picking players up on the perimeter while their guards stick close and take away options for easy baskets.

“They’re shrinking the court with their length, size, and physicality,” Banghart said.

Staley said their junior class led by starters in Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal came in two years ago eager to learn, defend and gain playing time.

“I think since we’re older now, we know what it’s all about to play defense,” Cooke said. “It’s just all coming together at this point.”


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