She was but a sapling in a forest of redwoods, but USC sophomore Aleighsa Welch made her presence known Wednesday against top-ranked Stanford.
The No. 21 Gamecocks lost the game, 53-49, but more than held their own against a team whose only challenger this season had been defending national champion Baylor.
Much of that was because of Welch.
Against the much taller Cardinal interior, Welch bulled her way to 16 points, mostly right under the basket. In so doing, she announced herself to a national audience as a player the rest of the SEC would be wise to plan for in conference play.
“I think I showed myself that I’m able to do it against the best-of-the-best teams,” Welch said. “I feel like I’m a lot more confident as a player now.”
USC coach Dawn Staley said the Gamecocks coaching staff had been working with Welch since the end of last season to boost her presence on the offensive end.
“We all know she can rebound the ball, but she has to add more to that,” Staley said. “Each year, good players bring something back. I think her ability to drive was there last year. She’s had more opportunity to do that.”
Welch’s personal growth has mirrored the team’s progress. Picked middle of the pack in preseason polls, USC instead has proven its Sweet 16 appearance last season was no fluke.
Staley attributes the team’s 10-1 start to the fact enough leadership returned from last season’s group to keep the momentum going.
“I think their confidence stems from experience,” Staley said. “Our leaders have played in big games. … We’ve had the opportunity to play in the tournament and we did fairly well, so it’s something that they are experienced at.”
What that experience provided for USC heading into Wednesday’s game was a focus on preparation.
“I thought we would be able to hold our own because they walked around and understood what the game plan was,” Staley said. “And they understood what it would come down to.”
Wednesday came down to contesting every Stanford shot attempt, outshooting the Cardinal from the field and limiting mistakes. USC managed to achieve those goals, missing out on victory mostly because their shots would not fall.
A key stretch came in the first half when USC held Stanford without a field goal for more than eight minutes but was unable to wrest away the lead. Late in the game, another old USC bugaboo — free throws — manifested when Ieasia Walker missed a free throw that would have tied the game at 47-47. Stanford immediately converted at the other end and USC was unable to close the gap.
The Gamecocks shot 28.6 percent from the field and were outscored 15-9 at the free throw line. They had 11 shots blocked and were outrebounded 42-31. But they stayed in the game by taking 16 more shots, hitting four 3-pointers while Stanford made none. USC also won the offensive rebound battle 13-9, committed 7 turnovers to Stanford’s 18 and recorded 10 steals.
What it added up to: Welch and Walker calling a game against a top-ranked opponent one that got away rather than one they were happy to survive.
“We were pleased with the effort, but we don’t want to just accept a moral victory,” Walker said. “We wanted to get the wins that we know are gettable.”
Said Welch, “I just think it showed the potential of the team we can be. … I feel like now we can just kind of take this game and set it as a bar of where we need to play to get where we want to be.”
Walker said from here on out, beginning with this afternoon’s game against S.C. State, it is important for the Gamecocks to approach every game the way they did for Stanford.
“We need to approach each game like that,” she said. “There’s a lot of talent out there, good teams in the SEC, so we just have got to approach it how we approached this game and I think we’ll be fine the rest of the season.”
In so doing, Staley said the team could make the Stanford loss more meaningful.
“I think the only way we make this make sense — meaning a moral victory, if you will — is if we beat the teams we are supposed to beat,” Staley said. “And win some games in our conference that most people don’t think we should win. That’s the only way this will work for us.”