Through nine games this year, South Carolina women’s basketball has been playing faster than it ever has before under Dawn Staley.
That’s not exactly shocking given how much Staley and her team have talked, both in the summer and throughout the early stages of the season, about playing up-tempo, free-flowing basketball where USC’s guards attack the basket off the dribble or fire away in transition. That style often goes hand-in-hand with fast-paced play.
But in Wednesday night’s 80-50 win over Appalachian State, the Gamecocks slowed down, at least by one measure, and that could be key heading into the team’s next contest.
Carolina entered Wednesday averaging more than 77 possessions per 40 minutes. The team’s season high under Staley is 70.4 and has typically averaged in the high 60s in her 10-season tenure. Against App State, USC possessed the ball 67 times. For reference, 302 of 353 NCAA women’s teams are currently averaging more possessions per game than that, according to Her Hoop Stats.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
What caused the slowdown was a combination of something Staley had been wanting to see from her team and an unexpected defensive wrinkle from the Mountaineers.
First, what Staley was looking for: “We’re continuing to challenge our players to find the right shots on the floor,’ Staley said the day before the game. “All open shots aren’t the right shots. You gotta find some rhythm, especially for us and our guards. We practice it every day, but we can’t seem to get that transition right in executing what we want.”
The Gamecocks shot 54 percent from the field, including 64.5 percent in the first half, and collected 20 assists on 31 made shots, their highest ratio in seven games. Players consistently passed up shots to move the ball to the open teammate, setting up even better shots.
“Really liked the ball movement. It’s more like what we practiced,” Staley said. “Those extra passes, those skip passes, moving the defense, having more than one or two passes really breaks the defense down. And we get ahead of the possession and we don’t let up and we just keep moving the ball and they could never catch up.”
Second, what App State did differently: “We hadn’t seen them play zone (defense). So that was surprising, because we didn’t even prep for the zone,” Staley said.
Throughout most of the first half, the Mountaineers appeared to stay in a 2-3 zone on defense, collapsing inside whenever the Gamecock guards tried to pass into the paint. Such an approach essentially dared USC to make shots from the perimeter. That dare backfired spectacularly as Carolina drained 12 3-pointers in the first half, more than it had made in a game all season, and led 53-27 at the break.
In Staley’s eyes, the 3-point shooting and better ball movement go hand in hand — South Carolina’s guards need rhythm to get going and whipping the ball around unlocked that rhythm. Extra passes led to longer possessions, which in turn led to fewer possessions and higher efficiency, to the tune of 1.19 points per possession, well above the team’s season average.
Now the challenge will be to replicate that success on the road this Sunday against Duke. Staley said she believes the Blue Devils and coach Joanne P. McCallie will probably run a similar defense to App State.
“We know we’re gonna see zone against Duke. They are playing a little bit more man, but their bread and butter is zone, and we gotta be able to knock down some shots and penetrate it and get the ball inside,” Staley said.
Like many zone defense teams, Duke allows opponents to take lots of 3-point attempts — Last year, the Blue Devils opponents’ took 37.4 percent of their shots from 3, the second highest mark in the country, according to Her Hoop Stats. Opponents got 37.9 percent of their points against Duke from 3-pointers, the highest rate nationally.
Those numbers are roughly similar to begin this season as well. Opponents are taking 38.1 percent of their shots from 3 and getting 36.7 percent of their points from those long range shots.
However, such statistics don’t mean much if South Carolina can’t get the 3 to fall. Such a scenario unfolded against Baylor, against whom opponents are getting 49.7 percent of their points from 3 this season. In that game, a 94-69 loss, the Gamecocks were just 4-for-12 from beyond the arc.