SAN ANTONIO — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was already thinking ahead after getting her 500th career win in the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament.
“Five hundred one sounds nice, and on and on and on,” Staley said.
Aliyah Boston had 20 points and 18 rebounds and Victaria Saxton also scored 20, leading the top-seeded Gamecocks to a 79-53 victory over Mercer on Sunday.
South Carolina (23-4) grabbed the lead for good when it closed the first half with a 16-5 run after a timeout by Staley, who had started the second quarter with what she called a “funky lineup” on the court.
“She just kind of talked about how we haven’t played in two weeks, so we’re just trying to get back in the flow. Don’t worry about it. Just keep going, pushing,” Saxton said of the coach’s message during that timeout. “So that’s just what we did. We just went out there and kept playing our game.”
The Gamecocks were national champs in 2017, when the Final Four was last played in Texas. They went 32-1 last season, spent the final 10 weeks at No. 1 and Staley was the AP coach of the year, but they didn’t get a chance to win another title because the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the pandemic.
Next up for South Carolina is a matchup with Oregon State on Tuesday.
Amoria Neal-Tysor had 15 points for Mercer (19-7). Jada Lewis added 14 points, and Shannon Titus finished with 12.
Staley is 328-102 in her 13 seasons at South Carolina, after going 172-80 in eight seasons at Temple. The SEC Tournament champion Gamecocks are in their ninth consecutive NCAA tourney, winning in the first round each time.
“I mean it’s a great milestone,” Staley said. “It means that you’ve been in the game a long time. And more than likely you’ve had some great players that allows you to get to this point, from my Temple days to my South Carolina days. … I’m forever indebted to them.”
It was Boston’s 28th double-double in 60 career games. The All-American forward from the U.S. Virgin Islands had 15 points and 10 rebounds at the break. She made a 3-pointer at the buzzer, which came right after Lewis hit a 3 to end an 11-0 run by the Gamecocks.
After being down 11 points in the first quarter, Mercer opened the second with a 15-4 run. They got even at 27-all on a long jumper by Neal-Tysor, prompting a timeout by Staley, not long after Neal-Tysor had a steal and a breakaway layup.
Mercer coach Susie Gardner said her team had two objectives going into the game: Slow the ball down and not let the Gamecocks get easy transition layups, which the Bears did with some effectiveness, and keep them from getting offensive rebounds.
“We did a really poor job with that, and that was the difference in the game,” Gardner said. “They beasted us on the offensive glass.”
With Boston, Saxton and 6-foot-4 forward Laeticia Amihere (11 points, eight rebounds) on the front line, South Carolina had a 52-27 rebounding edge that included 21 offensive rebounds and 23 second-chance points. The Gamecocks had a 42-16 scoring advantage in the paint.
Mercer was in its third consecutive NCAA Tournament, but wouldn’t have made it last year, when the Bears were 8-23. The Southern Conference Tournament champions were the most improved of the 64 teams to make it into this year’s NCAA Tournament, with 11 more wins and 16 fewer losses.
“Honestly this is the best year ever had in my life in college basketball, especially through the ups and downs,” said Lewis, the senior who had transferred from Georgia State. “It was an amazing experience. … I definitely see them winning a championship next year. I have no doubt, and I know Coach is going to get them to the Sweet 16 like she wants to.”
South Carolina is playing without its only senior, with 6-foot-2 guard LeLe Gressett sidelined by a right foot injury suffered in the SEC Tournament championship game.