Women's March Madness: South Carolina's strength isn't just Aliyah Boston. It's depth.
Like many of you, I picked No. 1 overall seed South Carolina to repeat as national champ. But my reasoning might have been different than yours.
Believe it or not, it wasn’t because of Aliyah Boston, excellent as she is. While the senior has a strong chance to repeat as national player of the year and is easily the most important piece of the Gamecocks roster, she’s not the biggest issue for opposing teams. It’s her teammates, led by SEC Sixth Woman of the Year Kamilla Cardoso, who really create problems.
Boston, along with the rest of the starting five led South Carolina to the overall No. 1 seed and the presumptive favorite to repeat as national champions. Most in women’s basketball — including South Carolina's Sweet 16 opponent, fourth-seeded UCLA — would love to have even one of the Gamecocks starters on their roster. But they’d also be thrilled to get a reserve.
And that’s exactly why South Carolina, which faces the Bruins Saturday at 2 p.m. ET, is likely to win another championship — the strength of the Gamecocks' bench.
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South Carolina separates with bench play
Boston is the best player in the game. She sets the tone for South Carolina on both ends of the floor and is who opponents game plan around. But the Gamecocks separate themselves with their bench — which was clear Sunday with its 76-45 win over eighth-seeded South Florida.
You might have seen online that people were freaking out about South Carolina trailing 16-12 after the first quarter, and only leading 32-29 at half.
Not to worry. Coach Dawn Staley turned to her bench — which is regularly outscoring opponents’ benches by close to 25 points per game. Going into the NCAA Tournament, South Carolina’s reserves accounted for 45% of the team’s offense. This season, eight different players players have led South Carolina in scoring.
In the second round, the Gamecocks’ second string answered, with the reserves pouring in 30 points. While starting guard Zia Cooke led the way with 21 points, 11 different Gamecocks scored at least two (three players did not score).
How many other teams can say they’ve got 14 (14!) players who are ready to compete for a national championship? Answer: None of them.
It's rare, at best, to have multiple All-American candidates on one roster. Boston was a lock as a repeat All-American. Cooke made a strong case as did Brea Beal, the nation’s best one-on-one defender. Personally, I was tempted to vote Cardoso.
In the paint, the 6-foot-7 junior forward is a giant among bigs, her fingertips practically grazing the rim when she goes to rebound. She plucks missed shots off the glass and effortlessly lays them back up, then lopes down the court to alter the opposition’s shots. The Brazil native averages 9.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in just 18 minutes per game.
Read that again: Almost 10 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per game and in less than a half of play. That’s the type of production and efficiency coaches drool over … or weep over, depending on who they’re rooting for.
UConn didn't have depth. The Gamecocks do.
It’s natural to compare what Staley is building in Columbia, South Carolina, to what Geno Auriemma has built in Storrs, Connecticut. The Huskies have won 11 national championships and been to 14 consecutive Final Fours.
But depth has never been a major part of UConn’s game plan. The Huskies typically beat teams because they had seven to eight really good players, most of whom were McDonald’s All-Americans. They blitzed teams early and intimidated opponents before they ever took the floor. UConn was always the favorite as long as no one got injured. This year, the Huskies have been hampered by injuries, and it’s taken a toll. (Though they seem to finally be mostly healthy and rounding into form at just the right time.)
South Carolina has those factors too, plus a bench full of scorers.
Against South Florida, only two players, Boston and Cooke, played more than 24 minutes. South Florida, meanwhile, had five players who played 24 minutes or more.
That means even if you lock down Boston and Cooke, South Carolina can and will rush fresh, talented bodies at you all game long.
Follow sports enterprise reporter Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Women's March Madness: South Carolina's dominance isn't just its stars