A substantial test two games into the SEC season? Why not?
That’s how it usually is in this league.
Vanderbilt, after opening its conference slate with an upset of Georgia, is in Columbia on Sunday to take on No. 13 South Carolina, which began its SEC schedule with a win at Arkansas. The Commodores feature the SEC’s leading scorer in guard Christina Foggie. The Gamecocks are 8-0 at home and are blowing out scoreboard bulbs with a mix of athletic guards and — for a change — post dominance.
The matchups should be entertaining, and for USC, it’s a chance to get an early leg up in the standings. That may be needed with all-star Kentucky coming to town on Thursday.
USC coach Dawn Staley saw good and bad during the Arkansas win. She was pleased that USC battled to win, despite far too many turnovers (21) and frittering away a double-digit lead. Defense has been a problem all season, but the Gamecocks held the Razorbacks to 26.1 shooting from the field.
“I thought we probably played our best defensive game,” Staley said. “Being able to take away Arkansas’ strengths, their ball-screen action and beating them to 50-50 balls.”
USC will need much more of the same Sunday. Vanderbilt runs through its guards, senior teammates Foggie and Jasmine Lister. They are an extension of each other on the court. The Gamecocks’ biggest defensive weakness has been keeping guards in front of them in the half-court, which plays to Vanderbilt’s strength.
Where the Gamecocks can succeed is on offense. Guard Tiffany Mitchell quietly has become one of the league’s most dependable players, able to score from anywhere and capable of doing the dirty work when USC has to have a basket. Aleighsa Welch can slash from high and low, while Asia Dozier does whatever needs to be done.
USC can assert itself in the paint as well, with Vanderbilt fielding three players 6-foot-1 or above, and one of them, the 6-1 Marqu’es Webb, who plays. Centers Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates will have plenty of opportunities.
Coates posted her fourth double-double of the season in relief of a foul-plagued Ibiam at Arkansas and kept a strong stretch intact. Over her past three games, Coates has averaged 17 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocks, and swatted five Arkansas shots to tie USC’s single-game freshman record.
She’s not a secret anymore, but feels used to playing with a target on her back.
“I got it in high school, I’m not expecting any less in college,” Coates said. “I’m feeling pretty confident after the whole three-game slump thing, and having my talk with coach Staley.”
Coates and Ibiam have substituted for each other, but with Vanderbilt’s reliance on the guards, perhaps they’ll be on the court at the same time Sunday. Staley will depend on what’s worked the best, and lately, that’s been Coates.
“If she’s not on our opponents’ scouting report, then obviously, I’m in the wrong profession,” Staley said. “She’s going to be targeted. She can average a double-double when she puts her mind to it.”
Note: Khadijah Sessions remains out with a sprained ankle, although she is off crutches. Staley will not play her until she’s at least “90 to 95 percent,” meaning that she is highly unlikely to play Sunday.
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