South Carolina’s Ability to Win Ugly Should Terrify the Rest of the Country

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The No. 1 Gamecocks scraped out a win against No. 24 UNC, despite playing their worst game of the season—a result that shows the program is still as dangerous as ever.

The version of No. 1 South Carolina on the floor Thursday night bore little resemblance to the version that has dominated so far this season.

Gone was the trademark discipline. Gone was the reign over the glass. Gone was the explosive offense and prolific ball movement. Gone, in short, was so much of what has made this roster the most dangerously balanced in the country.

It didn’t matter. Even on an uncharacteristically disjointed night, the Gamecocks still took down No. 24 North Carolina, winning 65–58. It was a challenge for a South Carolina team who has not faced many of them so far this year. And it felt like a warning for the rest of the field. On their worst night of the season to date, getting beat on the boards, committing more turnovers and more fouls than usual? The Gamecocks are still exceptionally hard to beat.

South Carolina's Te-Hina Paopao (0) attempts to steal the ball from North Carolina's Alyssa Ustby during the second half of a game.

South Carolina was far from its usual self on Thursday night, particularly on offense. 

The score gives a hint of just how atypical this performance was for South Carolina. This roster entered Thursday averaging a shade over 100 points a game. The Gamecocks have played a competitive schedule—three of their first six games have been against ranked teams—and they’ve managed to hang triple digits on teams like No. 18 Notre Dame and Maryland. But they couldn’t approach that on Thursday.

UNC closed in on South Carolina’s strengths and deftly closed them off. Their ball movement? The Gamecocks entered Thursday leading the nation in assists per game at 26.4. They managed just eight against UNC. Their dominance on the glass? The Gamecocks, again, entered Thursday leading the nation in both offensive and defensive boards (19.6 and 38.6, respectively, per game). But UNC became the first team this year to outrebound South Carolina, finishing with 45 boards to the Gamecocks’ 39 and holding them to just six offensive rebounds. And their ability to score in the paint? South Carolina does much of its best work there, anchored by leading scorer Kamilla Cardoso, who averages 16 points per game. But UNC expertly limited the 6’ 7” center. For the first time this year, she failed to reach double figures, finishing with just six points and fouling out in the closing minutes.

The Tar Heels slowed the game down into a gritty, defensive affair that bordered on downright ugly, and the Gamecocks initially looked ill-suited for it. UNC never trailed in the first half and led by as many as 11 points. (No opponent had built a lead of more than eight over South Carolina before Thursday.) But the Gamecocks adjusted at halftime. They still looked far from the best versions of themselves, but nevertheless, they made it work.

South Carolina’s Te-Hina Paopao (0) drives against North Carolina's Kayla McPherson (11) during the second half of a game.

Paopao made three three-pointers in South Carolina’s win, giving the Gamecocks a spark from beyond the arc.

They matched UNC’s grinding defensive energy, and where their usual methods of production were cut off, they found new ones. Transfer guard Te-Hina Paopao splashed from beyond the arc. Sophomore forward Chloe Kitts fought her way to the free-throw line. Bree Hall had her most complete game of the year, and Cardoso finished with 16 rebounds, still finding a way to contribute despite being compromised offensively. The Tar Heels had chances to stop the attack and regain their footing. But they couldn’t get out of their own way. The game remained close until the final minutes. Once the Gamecocks had a lead, however, there was no going back.

Of all South Carolina’s impressive stats, there is perhaps none more astounding than this: The Gamecocks have won the last nine games in which they trailed by double digits. That streak dates back to 2021. (Their only losses in that stretch—there haven’t been many—have come in close games where they only ever trailed by a few.) There’s been considerable turnover on this roster; South Carolina has an entirely different starting five in 2023 than it did in ‘22. But the competitive DNA here feels consistent. It’s cliche to say a team does its best when seriously challenged. Yet it feels hard to argue the point with Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks.

Go ahead: Build a big lead in the first two quarters. They’ll adjust, work around their shortcomings, and come back to win in the second half. It’s been years since they’ve done otherwise.

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