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Thursday, December 2, 2021

South Carolina Women’s Basketball Soars in Place, Atop the Rankings

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Even with an emphatic victory over Connecticut on Monday, the South Carolina women’s basketball team couldn’t hope to gain ground when the national rankings came out on Tuesday.

The Gamecocks had been atop The Associated Press Top 25 poll from the start of the season, a reflection of their trip to the Final Four last spring and a deep, experienced roster. The 73-57 win over the Huskies, who were ranked No. 2, simply made the vote unanimous.

The poll was released Tuesday — a day late for the second time in its history, to accommodate the matchup between No. 1 and 2 — and the voters dropped UConn (3-1) to third behind Maryland (6-0), which is scheduled to visit the Gamecocks (6-0) on Dec. 12.

South Carolina will then on Dec. 21 host Stanford, which is the reigning national champion and ranked seventh after being upset by Texas, and in January there will be a rematch with UConn. South Carolina opened its season with a win over North Carolina State, now ranked No. 5.

Texas moved from No. 25 to No. 12 with help from a win over Stanford, the defending national champion.Credit…Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The Gamecocks’ schedule is notably ambitious, even for a sport in which elite teams typically try to play one another before their conference seasons begin.

“You have to feed them,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said of her players on Monday when asked why she had created such a challenging schedule. “They want to play the very best teams in the country. They want to measure themselves.”

Connecticut’s strength is hard to assess, because its longtime dominance is bound to influence voters.The team received five No. 1 votes in last week’s poll, when it had only one win, against unranked Arkansas. Dropping to No. 3 this week is a fairly mild consequence given that the day before their loss to the Gamecocks, the Huskies won in a surprisingly close game against 18th-ranked South Florida (4-2).

The Gamecocks seem positioned to be a title contender for several years to come, after Staley has assembled the best recruiting classes in the nation in two of the past three years, according to ESPN.

Under Staley, South Carolina has won one national title, in 2017, and she entered this season, her 14th as the head coach, with a seven-year, $22.4 million contract extension and expectations at new heights.

Two of her A-list recruits, the juniors Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke,are at the helm of what is now a seasoned team, with five returning starters from the trip to a national semifinal, where South Carolina narrowly lost to Stanford.

Boston is the team’s centerpiece, able to score from many more parts of the floor than her 6-foot-5 frame might suggest. Last season she averaged a double-double (13.7 points and 11.5 rebounds), and this year, after spending the off-season working on her conditioning, she has proved capable of running the floor with even her smallest, speediest peers. She is crafty near the basket, but more surprising is her ability to occasionally score from behind the 3-point line.

Cooke entered the college game on a wave of highlight reels from the kinds of outlets that typically focus on N.B.A. dunks. Her flash is balanced by Destanni Henderson, a 5-foot-7 senior guard who is the team’s leading facilitator and a scoring threat.

The team’s overall experience, though, makes it especially dangerous. A deep bench features promising freshmen, plus players who have already logged plenty of minutes like the junior Laeticia Amihere and the senior Destiny Littleton.

That experience translates into suffocating defensive pressure.

“You didn’t really see the impact in the first half,” Staley said after Monday’s win. “The third and fourth quarters are when you start feeling what our defense does to teams.” Connecticut, for example, was 1 of 11 from the field in the fourth quarter, unable to get around the Gamecocks, who had four steals in that period.

Staley, who has long been known for her emphasis on defense, called this team “the best and the deepest” of the ones she has coached on that front.

The national poll could look quite different after South Carolina has been through the gantlet of Maryland, Stanford and the UConn rematch. But the rare delay of the national poll suggested that this week’s win over the Huskies might be a milestone for the sport.

The only other time rankings were released late was in January 1995, after Tennessee, which had already won three of its eight N.C.A.A. titles, lost to UConn. The Huskies would also defeat Tennessee for that season’s national title, the first of a record-breaking 11 for UConn.

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