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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    No. 1 South Carolina gears up for SEC matchup vs. defending national champion LSU

    South Carolina head women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley yells from the sideline during a game against Florida on Jan. 4 in Gainesville, Fla. (Alan Youngblood/AP Photo)
    South Carolina forward Sania Feagin, left, reacts after making a 3-point field goal against Texas A&M on Sunday in College Station, Texas. (Sam Craft/AP Photo)

    Columbia, S.C. — Even Dawn Staley can't believe she's watching No. 1 South Carolina, the last undefeated team in women's basketball.

    To hear Staley describe it, the practice sessions of the 17-0 Gamecocks are filled with defensive breakdowns, missed shots and terrible execution.

    But come gametime, South Carolina (5-0 Southeastern Conference) turns into a juggernaut, more than ready to take on and dominate the game's best. The Gamecocks get that chance again Thursday night when they play at No. 9 LSU, the defending national champion and the preseason pick to win the Southeastern Conference.

    “For us, I think we'll rise to whatever we need to rise to,” Staley said Wednesday.

    No team has been better overall than the young Gamecocks this season. They lead the country in field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense. They've beaten four ranked opponents by a average margin of 20.8 points.

    And they've done it with a group in which only one returner from last year's Final Four team — point guard Raven Johnson — started any games.

    “They don't have the players they had last year,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said. “Obviously, they lost a lot. But South Carolina just reloads.”

    The Gamecocks lean heavily on 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso, who backed up All-American Aliyah Boston the past two seasons, and Oregon transfer Te-Hina Paopao.

    Cardoso is averaging a double-double with 13.3 points and 10.7 rebounds. She leads the team's defense with 49 blocks.

    Paopao is second at 12.5 points a game and leads the Southeastern Conference in 3-point shooting percentage at .558 (43 of 77). It's a behind-the-arc dimension Staley's teams have not always had.

    Newcomer MiLaysia Fulwiley is a dynamic freshman who plays with a flash and skill that Staley sometimes has to reign in. She and second-year forward Chloe Kitts, both averaging double-digit points, have often pushed the pace when opponents make mistakes.

    Reserve forward Ashlyn Watkins is second in blocks at 47 and put up the program's second ever dunk — she got the first as a freshman last year — when she stole the ball at midcourt and broke free toward the basket against Kentucky earlier this month.

    LSU (18-2, 5-1) is not without its standouts, led by versatile forward Angel Reese, who like Cardoso is averaging a double double with 19.9 points and 12.1 rebounds.

    Reese was joined this year by a couple of high-profile transfers in Louisville's Hailey Van Lith and DePaul's Aneesah Morrow. Van Lith leads the Tigers with 74 assists, while Morrow has averaged 18.1 points and 9.7 rebounds.

    Reese and the Tigers were beaten badly, 88-64, at South Carolina last season. An anticipated Final Four rematch was derailed by the Gamecocks' only loss last season, 77-73, to Caitlin Clark and Iowa in the national semifinals.

    Mulkey thinks Reese wants to redeem herself from last year's loss. “I hope she uses it as motivation,” the coach said.

    The teams play just once in the regular season, although it's a good bet they could meet for the SEC Tournament title in March or in the Final Four a month later.

    Even those skilled at breaking down game film don't always know what they're seeing in South Carolina games.

    “It's hard for me to judge if a team is any good or not because her team is so good in all aspects and facets of the game,” Gamecocks men's basketball coach Lamont Paris said.

    If only Staley could get her Gamecocks to look as good during workouts as in games. It happened again Wednesday with Staley dissatisfied when Johnson gambled for a steal and didn't get it. “Ball side, Ra,” Staley shouted. “Ball side.”

    Johnson, a junior, said the players are connected and know they can reach whatever level it takes to succeed.

    “That comes with our coaching staff,” Johnson said. "They tell us not to get too high with the highs or too low with the lows.

    “We've just got to treat this as another game on the road,” she continued.

    It's a strategy that has worked to perfection for South Carolina so far.

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