The Gamecocks’ pragmatism has paid dividends so far. Just how exactly do they do it?
It all started against the Bisons. In their first quarter of the 2022 D1 Basketball Tournament, South Carolina held Howard to a record-low four points. Their performance was acclaimed as a dominant showing fit for a No. 1 seed. It was, in fact, so dominant that their abysmal shooting record didn’t even matter.
The fact that the Gamecocks’ strengths balanced out their poor attacking form wasn’t lost on head coach Dawn Staley. Their impressive defense is needed, she claimed to NBC, “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?”
But even with Staley’s explanation, it can be hard for fans to make sense of some key questions. How did South Carolina’s defense become so good? Why is it strong enough to offset their offense (which, in layman’s terms, is basically Aliyah Boston and the Lord’s Prayer)? And are their tactics truly “pragmatic,” or just plain-old stale? Luckily, the answers to these queries are more straightforward than they appear.
Put simply, the key to South Carolina’s defensive improvement is their focus on strength. Staley has put her players on a weight-lifting regimen for the 2021-22 season, allowing them to increase their jump heights and pose a more physical threat when guarding. So far, this change-up has paid off. In their Second Round match against Miami, the team managed eight blocks––just four away from breaking a semi-final record––and kept the Hurricanes to a 24% field goal average.
But without attacking gusto, strength isn’t enough to win titles. In order to understand how the Gamecocks’ defense complements their offense, let’s circle back to where it all began: their dominant victory against Howard. This matchup, while far from the first time that South Carolina suffocated the opponent, was a great example of their counter-attacking flair. Per Gamecocks Online, “South Carolina rolled up 41 rebounds in the first half, [including] 19 on the offensive end which led to 16 second-chance points.”
At first glance, the 22 defensive rebounds don’t seem too important. But the Gamecocks are so darned fast in transitions, meaning that every defensive rebound they snag is a near-guarantee that their paint will be safe. Watch the pattern that developed in their first half against the Bison––Howard misses a free throw, an SC player gets the rebound, and boom: Aliyah Boston’s on the other side of the field attempting a 3-pointer. And that’s not even mentioning how they created 12 points from just four turnovers against UNC. Their physically impressive defense creates a space for them to counterattack––and boy, are their counterattacks swift and deadly.
Now, we’re faced with a million-dollar question: is Staley and the Gamecocks’ game-plan enjoyable? The answer is…yesn’t. Critiques of their offensive output are warranted, as seen by their poor shooting nights in the first two rounds; they can’t afford to do the same in their match against Louisville, which hasn’t occurred at the time of writing. But there’s beauty to be found in a team that knows their game-plan and executes it flawlessly––even if that game-plan doesn’t spawn scoring bonanzas on the regular.
“You need to be able to stop the other team in scoring,” SC star Aliyah Boston said before their Sweet Sixteen campaign began. “So we take pride in that, making sure we’re getting defensive stops.” With a defense as indomitable as the Gamecocks’, that pride is well-warranted.