COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — This wasn’t the NCAA Tournament debut South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was hoping to see from her top-seeded Gamecocks.
The final score was a 72-40 loss to No. 16 Norfolk State (26-7) on Friday. Staley saw early on poor shooting and a disjointed offense that could cost her team down the road.
“If it wasn’t for the way we play defense, (Norfolk State) probably would have given us a lot of trouble with how we shot the ball,” Staley said.
Zia Cooke scored 11 points as South Carolina moved five wins away from a perfect season. Aliyah Boston had seven points, nine rebounds and two blocks for the Gamecocks (33-0), who won their 39th straight game since last year’s NCAA title game.
They also went 11-0 in first-round games under Staley. It didn’t matter that much to the two-time national championship coach.
She was so frustrated with her offense, she called an early timeout in the second quarter with her team ahead 24-12 – something she rarely does.
Staley told her players to lock in because things aren’t getting any easier. “We tried to force things that weren’t there, we tried to make spectacular plays instead of just simplifying,” she said. “It happened more than once and it was time to let our players know that we don’t want to give (opponents) opportunities.”
This was a colossal mismatch against the top like many of the other games South Carolina has been a part of this season.
“Wow,” Norfolk coach Larry Vickers said when he sat down to talk to the media for the first time.
Norfolk State’s tallest player is 6-foot-2 freshman forward Skye Robinson. South Carolina has seven players who are that many or more. The Spartans’ tallest player on the bench? Vickers, the team’s 6-9 head coach, who walked onto the Spartans’ men’s team and eventually became team captain.
“They’re as good as you expect them to be,” he said. “And they just keep pushing them, pushing them out.”
South Carolina did its best to end any drama early, as Boston and Cooke each scored five points in the first quarter for a 20-7 lead.
The Gamecock starters picked things up in the third quarter scoring the first six points to take a 40-18 lead and the Spartans had no hope of catching them. The lead grew to 30 points after three quarters, and few complained in the mostly garnet-colored stands.
Vickers joked Thursday that he wasn’t sure how much of a home game this was until he walked around the arena and saw Staley’s ceiling-to-door banner at the building’s main entrance.
Kierra Wheeler led Norfolk State with 13 points. The Spartans shot nearly 40% on the season, but were held to 16-of-61 (26%) by the Gamecocks.
Wheeler, a 6-1 sophomore who spent time guarding the 6-5 Boston, acknowledged how it can wear you down quickly. “I, being the one guarding Aaliyah, I am,” Wheeler said. “It was definitely a challenge.”
South Carolina’s second-round opponent, South Florida, won the American Athletic Conference regular season and has a pair of leading scorers in Elena Tsineke and Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu. Fankam Mendjiadeu has 24 double-doubles this season, more than the Boston Gamecocks, who have 20.
THE BIG PICTURE
Norfolk State: The Spartans were defeated in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title game a year ago, sparking this season’s run to the league tournament title and first NCAA Tournament berth since 2002. Vickers’ team has a base of five sophomores that hopefully they can gain experience so their next trip to the tournament won’t be as long.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks were untested and used several up-and-coming younger players like Sania Feagin, Chloe Kitts and Talaysia Cooper who wouldn’t see much action in a tighter game. Staley believes this can prepare those less experienced members of the team to be ready if they are called upon in a big place.
South Carolina’s two sophomore bench players in Bree Hall and Sania Feagin came to the NCAA media postgame with a lot to learn. First of all, sit in front of the correct name identifier. The two were asked to quickly switch seats when Hall took Feagin’s seat. Feagin finished with nine points, making four of her five shots. Hall finished with six points and four rebounds.
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