COLUMBIA, S.C. – This wasn’t the NCAA Tournament debut South Carolina coach Dawn Staley hoped to see from her top-seeded Gamecocks.
The final scored showed a 72-40 blowout over No. 16 seed Norfolk State (26-7) on Friday. Staley saw poor shooting early and a disjointed attack that could cost her team down the road.
“If it wasn’t for the way we play defense, (Norfolk State) would’ve probably given us a lot of trouble given 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 dating back to last year’s NCAA title run.
They also moved to 11-0 in first-round games under Staley. Not that much of that mattered to the two-time national championship coach.
She was so frustrated with her attack, 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 don’t get easier. “We tried to force things that weren’t there, 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 we don’t want to give (opponents) opportunities.”
This was a colossal mismatch from the tip like so many other games South Carolina’s been a part of this season.
“Wow,” Norfolk coach Larry Vickers said when he first sat down to talk to media.
Norfolk State’s tallest player is freshman forward Skye Robinson at 6-foot-2. South Carolina has seven players that tall or taller. 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 a team captain.
“They’re as good as you expect them to be,” he said. “And they just keep running them out, running them out.”
South Carolina did its best to end any drama early as Boston and Cooke scored five points apiece in the opening quarter for a 20-7 lead.
The Gamecock starters picked things up in the third quarter scoring the first six points to lead 40-18 and the Spartans could not hope to catch up. The lead swelled to 30 points after three quarters with few in the mostly full and garnet-colored stands complaining.
Vickers joked on Thursday he wasn’t sure how much of a home game this was until walking around the arena and seeing Staley’s ceiling-to-door length banner in the building’s main entrance.
Kierra Wheeler led Norfolk State with 13 points. The Spartans came in shooting almost 40% on the season, but were held to 16 of 61 (26%) by the Gamecocks.
Wheeler, the 6-1 sophomore who spent time guarding the 6-5 Boston, acknowledged how that can quickly wear you down. “Me, being the one guarding Aliyah, yes I did,” Wheeler said. “It was definitely a challenge.”
South Carolina’s second-round opponent, South Florida, won the American Athletic Conference’s regular season and features a pair of top scorers in Elena Tsineke and Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu. Fankam Mendjiadeu has 24 double doubles this season, more than the Gamecocks’ Boston, who has 20.
Norfolk State: The Spartans were beaten in the title game of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference a year ago, fueling this season’s run to a league tournament title and first NCAA Tournament berth since 2002. Vickers’ team has a base of five sophomores he hopes can gain experience so their next trip to the tournament won’t take so long.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks weren’t tested and used several younger, rising players like Sania Feagin, Chloe Kitts and Talaysia Cooper who wouldn’t see much action in a tighter game. Staley believes this can prep those less experienced team members to be ready if called on in a big spot.
Two South Carolina sophomore bench players in Bree Hall and Sania Feagin came to the NCAA media postgame with a lot to learn. Foremost, sitting in front of the correct name identifier. The two were asked to quickly switch places when Hall sat in Feagin’s spot. Feagin finished with nine points, making four of her five shots. Hall finished with six points and four rebounds.