When she was a freshman, Brea Beal joined her new South Carolina teammates for a pickup basketball game in 2019. They didn’t have much playing experience with Beal, but they quickly learned about her defensive prowess.
“She was just locking everybody up,” senior guard Olivia Thompson recalled.
Four years later, Beal is one of four finalists for this year’s Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award, and she showed why Saturday in South Carolina’s 59-43 win against UCLA in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament.
Beal held her matchup with Charisma Osbourne — who scored 36 points in a Monday win over Oklahoma — to just 14 points on 4-of-12 shooting Saturday. She deflected passes, disrupted shots and finished plays with defensive rebounds.
Defense has become Beal’s signature trait, but it wasn’t always her calling card.
Beal built up her reputation as a scorer before coming to South Carolina, amassing 2,720 points for Rock Island High School in Illinois and winning the Gatorade Player of the Year award in her home state.
During her South Carolina career, she has scored 10 or more points 22 times — and South Carolina has won all of those games.
But Beal gradually embraced the role of becoming a defender. She didn’t arrive at Columbia with that role in mind, but it’s one that she has since flourished in.
“It’s not necessarily something that was just like, ‘I’m the best defender,’ ” Beal said. “It came naturally. Just as well as offensively, it’s just something you’ve got to be patient (with) and just accept as time comes.”
Beal’s defensive abilities are evident in practice.
Surrounding opponents with her quick feet and 6-foot-1 frame, Beal has stifled her teammates as well as players on the practice squad. She doesn’t relent based on who’s handling the ball, constantly looking to stay in front of players and take them out of their rhythm.
“She’s strong as hell,” freshman guard Talaysia Cooper said. “She is, and she’s a lockdown defender.”
Four years of college basketball experience helped Beal grasp what teams often try to do.
Beal’s preparation in film sessions helps her learn an opponent’s tendencies, beat them to their spots and get around screens.
She even gathers players before games in the team hotel, communicating game plans to her teammates.
“Brea is an incredibly smart player,” Thompson said. “She knows what to do. She knows what Coach expects on the defensive end, and she knows other teams’ systems. When she understands the assignment of who she’s guarding, it just makes it so much easier for her.”
With the offensive weapons USC has had since 2019 — players like Cooke, Ty Harris, Aliyah Boston, Destanni Henderson and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan — Beal hasn’t been one of the team’s first looks on offense. But she found ways to get involved as time went on.
Beal was one of three players to score at least 10 points for South Carolina on Saturday. She knocked down both of the team’s first-half 3-pointers while UCLA packed the paint against the Gamecocks.
Her outside shooting has picked up this season, and she’s shooting 38.7% from long range.
“She takes pride in (defense), and not a lot of players do that,” senior forward Laeticia Amihere said. “But I’d also like to give her great kudos for her offense, because her offense was killing it today.”
Beal’s defensive ability is one of the reasons South Carolina won last year’s national championship, and it’s a big part of the team’s undefeated record this season.
As South Carolina gets further into March Madness, the defensive aspect of Beal’s game, along with her other attributes, give the Gamecocks a unique weapon to use against their opponents.
“She’s smart,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “She’s a willing passer. She’s knocking down her three-ball. She’s getting to the basket. She’s an elite defender, and she’s someone that can play a complementary role.”
NCAA Tournament: South Carolina’s next game
Who: No. 1 South Carolina (35-0) vs No. 2 Maryland (28-6)
When: 7 p.m. Monday