South Carolina, UConn show vulnerabilities in Elite 8 advancements

A'ja Wilson drives to the basket. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.
A’ja Wilson drives to the basket. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.

Albany – The first game of the Albany regional, between South Carolina and Buffalo, stayed exciting and close until the final two minutes.

Th eleventh-ranked Bulls gave the reigning national champion Gamecocks everything they could handle, fighting back each time they opened the lead, and forcing them to battle for every point.

The contest was scheduled at the sinfully early hour of 11:30 a.m. South Carolina’s shoot-around was scheduled for 5:30 am, but at game time, it appeared as if the Gamecocks had not woken up yet.

The Bulls could not quite pull off their third upset of the Tournament, but they served notice that they are moving into the elite category of non-power-5 teams to which the NCAA needs to pay more attention.

Buffalo’s guards were able to penetrate to the hoop at will in the first quarter, while South Carolina had trouble getting the ball into A’ja Wilson, the only player who seemed willing to take a shot.

At the first media timeout, Buffalo led 10-6. Coach Dawn Staley instilled some energy into her squad during the break, and they closed better on defense, and found angles to get Wilson the ball. They did not control their energy well, however, and their eight first quarter turnovers were costly, leading to ten of Buffalo’s 17 points in the period. Buffalo’s Cierra Dillard led all scorers with 13 points in a quarter that ended with the lower seed in front, 17-16. Wilson scored six points, four of them from the line.

As the second period began, the Gamecocks sensibly ran most everything through Wilson. Like many teams before them, the Bulls had no answer for her on either end. Buffalo’s shooting was cooler than it had been during the first two rounds, although they managed to create many open looks. They succeeded in staying close, despite a real disadvantage in the paint, by hitting threes.

With the Gamecocks’ young guards neutralized by the Buffalo defense, Staley brought in three post-players and told her team to get the ball into the paint.  The double team demanded by Wilson freed Alexis Jennings to exploit mismatches on the off side. She scored ten points by the half.

After a three by Tyasha Harris, the Gamecocks led by ten with 1:30 left in the half. Although Buffalo continued to find open shots, they were not falling with sufficient frequency to make up the gap. The Bulls connected on just two of their final ten attempts, finishing the half shooting just 33 percent. South Carolina, on the other hand, hit six of eight to end the half. A late three by Stephanie Reed kept it in single digits, with South Carolina leading 40-31 going into the break.

The third period was largely even. South Carolina forfeited their 11-4 rebounding dominance with seven turnovers. The Gamecocks finally discovered how the get the ball to the guard left open by the post double-teams, and spread the scoring load. Buffalo missed a handful of open 10-12-footers, allowing South Carolina to maintain their nine point halftime lead, until Wilson’s dumb foul at halfcourt – defending a last second heave –  put Dillard on the line, where she made 2-3 to cut the lead to seven after three periods.

Buffalo forced another turnover for a score on the Gamecock’s first possession to cut the lead to five, but they were unable to make it any closer. The Bulls forced two more turnovers, but poor decisions on the fast break squandered those chances to bring it to within one.

Finding themselves in the game with under eight minutes remaining seemed to affect the Bulls, who made even more poor decisions, and frequent empty possessions. Their futility from three point range left them fighting from behind. The team which hit 14 of 27 threes against USF was just 5-17 midway through the fourth quarter. South Carolina’s played only slightly more disciplined basketball, and their uncontested misses and continuing turnovers allowed the Bulls to stay within six to eight points well into the fourth quarter.

Unfortunately, Buffalo’s shooting deteriorated further in a sequence of poor shots,  missing on five consecutive possessions while South Carolina hit three in a row, opening a ten point lead with five minutes remaining.

As time wound down, Dillard hit back to back threes around a two by Harris on the other end, and cut the lead to eight, 70-62 with 3:20 remaining. The pressure of the South Carolina bigs, however, drew fouls which put them in the bonus with over three minutes left and a ten point lead. The Gamecocks exploited the situation with a series of drives to the hoop, and their excellent free throw shooting forced Buffalo to back off on their aggressive defense. As South Carolina crept ahead slowly, the Bulls missed a series of desperation threes that led to run-outs by their opponents for an insurmountable lead 79-63 with a minute left.

Buffalo spared everyone the futility of fouling, and the game ended at that score. Their impressive run through the tournament was done.

The Bulls showed sadness, but not tears, as they left the court, having proven their ability to battle with – and even to defeat – some of the nation’s elite teams. Their success should be another step to recognition for the mid-majors out there, who have proven their worth throughout this tournament.

Reid, one of five Buffalo seniors who transformed this program, summed up the effort and spirit of her team.

“I mean, they were quite large, and when they played three bigs, it gave us a big challenge on the rebounding,” she said. “That was a good move. But you know, I think that are going to remember us, and that’s what we wanted to do.”

“You know, if we –win or lose, we want them to remember who we are and to know that they played Buffalo for 40 minutes and we didn’t stop fighting at any point. Yeah, they won the rebound battle. Yeah, they were huge. But we have big hearts and we went out proud of who we are.”

South Carolina advanced, but could not be happy with how they did so. Twenty-six turnovers is ugly at any level.

“I just thought we played too fast,” Staley said. “I think our team was anxious to play. We’ve been working on Buffalo for four days, and you know, we saw ways in which we could be effective and we just played too fast.”

“A’Ja walked like five times. That’s uncharacteristic of her. It is characteristic of the last few days’ games in which we’ve turned the ball over. We’ve got to figure out a way in which we limit those turnovers and turn them into at least shots at the basket.”

Though it often looked shaky, the Gamecocks prevailed only by dominating the boards (48-21) and getting to the free throw line (18-20). Wilson and Jennings scored 20 points each.

Cierra Dillard had 29 points, but took one third of Buffalo’s shots to do so. No teammate had more than eight points.

Napheesa Collier elevates to score. Photo courtesy of UConn Athletics.
Napheesa Collier elevates to score. Photo courtesy of UConn Athletics.

UConn 72, Duke 59

A defense is not always identified by turnovers forced. Although UConn has certainly forced lots of turnovers this season, the defensive effort against Duke highlighted the Huskies’ ability to defend for 30 seconds. After a few lapses that allowed the Blue Devils to hit consecutive threes early, UConn repeatedly forced them to force up a shot as the clock was running down. Rarely were those shots effective.

The Huskies had a sub-par shooting night, but still sprinted to a 30-16 lead midway through the second period on a series of run-outs and the interior defense of Napheesa Collier and Azura Stevens, the 6-6 transfer from Duke, who was a factor despite shooting just 1-5 in the half.

UConn extended the lead in the latter part of the second quarter with an 8-0 run over the last 1:01, ending with a Gabby Willliams 15-footer as the period ended. They held Duke to just six points in the second quarter, and went into the locker room having doubled the Blue Devils 40-20, an advantage that all but sealed the victory at halftime.

Duke committed just eight turnovers in the half, but UConn turned those miscues into twelve points. The Huskies held their opponents under 30 percent shooting on the half, – 25 percentage points under their season norm. UConn also ruled the boards, 22-15, scoring ten second-chance points.

For the top seeds, it was just another day at the office, and another dominant second quarter. The Blue Devil’s only bright spot was sophomore Leaonna Odom, who continued her inspired tournament play with 10 points on 4-9 shooting in the half. Seniors Kia Nurse and Williams each scored ten for UConn in the half.

The Huskies are accustomed to large leads, and usually comes out on fire in the third quarter. In this game, however, Duke owned the first few minutes of that frame, finding openings in the Husky defense, and outscoring them 11-6 in the first six minutes. Odom was on fire, scoring smoothly over the UConn defenders from six feet out.

Despite their comfortable lead, the Huskies looked out of sorts for the second game in a row. On one possession, they missed consecutive two-footers, then got tied up following a third offensive board. In a generally sloppy third period, the teams played evenly, closing the quarter on a missed put-back attempt by Stevens, with the score 51-31. UConn shot just 33 percent in the half, miserable by their standards.

Duke tried a half-court trap as the final period began, but the Huskies threaded through it without mishap. They were unable to pull any further away from Duke, however, as Odom continued to score at will in the paint, and UConn missed free-throw after free-throw. At the last media timeout, the score was 63-42.

The Husky malaise continued to the end of the game, even as coach Joanne P. McCallie substituted in her bench. UConn allowed consecutive drive-and-dish buckets and a pair of threes, as the Blue Devils closed the gap to 13, outscoring their opponents, 28-21 in the fourth quarter in a 72-59 loss.

UConn looked vulnerable on this day, though not to Duke, and probably not to South Carolina, which also looked less than polished in its much closer victory. The Huskies are not showing the killer instinct and attention to detail of past teams that have won it all.

How does a team shooting .775 from the free throw line miss eight of 16?  Free throws are entirely about focus. UConn looked unfocused more than once during the game, even as they won decisively.

Coach Geno Auriemma thought his team did OK mentally, but invoked the reality of college basketball.

“Today we didn’t make a lot of shots that we normally make,” he said. “So you can’t control whether the ball goes in or not once you shoot it. But you can control the approach that you take on it. And when you’re dealing with kids at this age, it’s not the easiest thing in the world.”

Defensively, UConn was solid, holding Duke’s “Splash Sisters” – guards Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell –  to a combined 16 points on 6-17 shooting and no free throw attempts. The pair of seniors averaged 34 points per game on the season.

Odom was a different story. The sophomore forward scored 22 against the Huskies – slightly more than her tournament average. The Huskies made a choice to focus on Brown and Greenwell, and Odom was skillful enough to make them pay.

“You’re not going to beat a really good team like Duke and think that you’re going to take everything away from them,” Auriemma said. “You’re going to have to give up something.”

“You’ve just got to choose, okay, this is what we’re willing to live with, and she took advantage of it. She’s really good around the basket. She’s really athletic. I’m sure when she starts making jump shots, she’ll be really, really a handful for everybody.”

Williams was again UConn’s most important player. She centered the defense, while filling up the statsheet with 15 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals.

“She makes the easy plays, and she makes the really difficult plays,” Auriemma said. “And I don’t know that there’s anybody that has been able to do what she’s done at both ends of the floor: make really difficult plays defensively look easy, and then on the offensive end, just pass the ball to a guy that cuts for a lay-up. I mean, that’s easy, but some people make that look hard. She’s unique in a lot of ways.”

McCallie admitted to being a member of the Williams fan club.

“I think not only is she so consistent, but she just doesn’t bat an eye at anything,” she said. “She competes at an Olympic level of focus.”

“[S]he’s the closest thing to Maya Moore to me – without the outside shooting as much – but still with that body type and the way she’s consistent. She’s very clever and very good, and she was a big problem for us.

On her side, Williams was amused when asked about McCallie’s comparison to Maya Moore.

“Maya Moore ‘without the outside shot.’ So just throw that in there,” Williams said. “Make sure you know. . . . I would never call myself Maya Moore, but that is a huge compliment.”

McCallie thought her team’s greatest downfall was poor rebounding.

“[This was] obviously a strong, tough game for us,” she said. “I think that’s good. I hate the fact that we were out-rebounded. I think that’s really bad. And I think that when that happens, good things can happen for the other team, which it did.”

UConn turned 15 offensive rebounds into 19 second-chance points, and had nine boards more than Duke overall.

South Carolina and UConn will vie for a Final Four spot Monday at 7 p.m. ET.