South Carolina women’s basketball survives Utah, 78-69, to remain perfect

Gamecock fans: breathe.

After 40 minutes of clenched fists, sweaty palms and — in Connecticut — back-and-forth basketball, South Carolina pulled through for its second-smallest margin of victory of the year.

The top-ranked Gamecocks defeated No. 11 Utah, 78-69, Sunday afternoon at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut during the Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase. It was USC’s fourth over a ranked opponent this season, which leads all ranked teams.

“We can only get better,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “That’s the thing. This is the worst we’re going to be and we’re just in December.”

The Gamecocks started their usual first five: Kamilla Cardoso, Chloe Kitts, Bree Hall, Raven Johnson and Te-Hina Paopao. Four players scored double-digit points — Cardoso (17), Paopao (15), Kitts (11) and MiLaysia Fulwiley (11).

South Carolina (9-0) will play its next game at home against Presbyterian at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The highs and lows of South Carolina’s defense

No team in the country is shooting 3-pointers like Utah. Heading into Sunday’s contest, the Utes had four games where they sank more than 15 3s (21, 18 and 17 twice), and have only made fewer than 10 on two occasions. Because they shoot at a 43.6% clip from beyond the arc, Staley said contesting 3s “just won’t do. We have to run them off the 3-point line.”

And South Carolina did a good job of that in the first half. The Utes averaged 31.9 3-point attempts per game before Sunday. After two quarters, Utah was 3-of-8 from three (37.5%). By game’s end, the Utes made 5-of-20.

But points in the paint — Utah had 46 — and the Utes’ leading scorer Alissa Pili really hurt South Carolina. Pili scored a career-high 37.

“I’d much rather get the win and have Pili score 37 on us, then her score 37 with the win,” Staley said. “Now, that’s a little bit hard to swallow. But, utmost respect for Pili. I mean, Utah, I hope we don’t see them in the tournament and whoever does get to see them, good luck to you.”

Turnover troubles

The Utah game felt, on paper, very similar to South Carolina’s games against North Carolina and Duke.

The Gamecocks shot well in the first half — 57% from the field and 44% from 3 — but struggled to hold on to possessions with 12 turnovers. They ended the game with 23. While those turnovers didn’t yield very many Utah points, they did prevent South Carolina from pulling away.

Clutch performances

Paopao, Watkins and Cardoso made huge impacts Sunday afternoon. As did South Carolina’s bench, which scored 26 points to Utah’s 2.

Paopao scored 15 points with three 3s and three steals. She hit several timely jump shots late in the game, including a 2-point bucket to extend South Carolina’s lead to 7 points.

Watkins’ presence rejuvinated the Gamecocks defensive efforts throughout the game. She provided a big boost in the third quarter, scoring 5 points and grabbed three rebounds in four minutes.

Cardoso scored a team-high 17 points with six rebounds.

Next four South Carolina WBB games

Dec. 16: vs. Presbyterian, 1 p.m. (SEC Network Plus) Dec. 19: at Bowling Green, 7 p.m. (ESPN+) Dec. 30: at East Carolina, 12 p.m. (ESPN2) Jan. 4: at Florida, 7 p.m. (SEC Network)