COLUMBIA, S.C. — It was a night that started off with a salute to South Carolina’s trip to the 2015 Women’s Final Four and ended with speculation that maybe we’d just watched two of the participants who’ll gather on the season’s last weekend in Indianapolis next April.
Second-ranked South Carolina beat No. 6 Ohio State 88-80 before 16,815 fans at Colonial Life Arena on Friday. If you wanted a game to get your blood racing to tip off this season, this was a great one to see.
“I like it. I like the razor-sharp focus that you need,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said of opening with a top-10 matchup. “We may not have executed the way we would have liked, but we had the effort.”
From homegrown talent leading the way for both teams to a pair of coaches making their mark on women’s basketball at a national level, there was plenty to appreciate. South Carolina big women A’ja Wilson (20 points, 14 rebounds) and Alaina Coates (17 and 13) each had double-doubles. And the backcourt blast furnace of Ohio State guards Kelsey Mitchell (36 points) and Ameryst Alston (23) will presumably be torching defenses all season.
Both Dawn Staley and Kevin McGuff actually started their head-coaching careers at schools that, at the time, were in the Atlantic 10. Staley spent eight seasons at Temple before coming to South Carolina for the 2008-09 season. McGuff was at Xavier for nine years, then Washington for two. When the Ohio State job opened in 2013, he couldn’t pass up the chance to return to his home state and try to make the Buckeyes into the superpower that many have long thought they could become.
Staley and McGuff are both 45 years old, both of the college class of ’92, both at programs that one can assume they might want to stay at for the rest of their careers. It has been fun to see what they’ve done so far, and you get the sense they are only getting started.
“We aspire to be one of the best programs in the country, and part of that is going out and proving it,” McGuff said. “You’ve got to play people. South Carolina has done that, and now we’re trying to do the same thing. We inherited some great kids, and we’ve recruited some other great kids. I think we’re certainly going in the right direction. I appreciate South Carolina playing us, and we look forward to having them up at our place next year.”
The Gamecocks made the program’s first Women’s Final Four this past April. Ohio State has advanced that far once — back in 1993 when led by then-freshman Katie Smith, who went on to be one of the all-time greats in the sport.
Smith is an Ohio native, and seven of the current Buckeyes are from Ohio, including starters Mitchell, Alston, Alexa Hart and Cait Craft.
Similarly, the Gamecocks have six players from South Carolina, and two are from 90 minutes north in Charlotte, North Carolina. Among that group are Wilson and Coates, who are both from greater Columbia, and starting guards Tiffany Mitchell (Charlotte) and Khadijah Sessions (Myrtle Beach).
“You know, we got lucky — we got in-state kids to stay at home to build upon,” Staley said. “When you’re able to build your brand on homegrown talent, it helps build a home-court advantage. You can’t branch out and be a great powerhouse if you’re not taking care of the kids at home who are of your caliber and can raise your program to the next level.”
For both teams Friday, it was a terrific opportunity to see their problem areas exposed, which doesn’t happen this soon unless you play such a high-caliber opponent.
The Buckeyes’ guard tandem, obviously, was stupendous at scoring. But Kelsey Mitchell and Alston had to create a lot on their own. Ohio State finished with just three assists total. That was partly because of the guards calling their own number so much, which is to be expected and a key element of the Buckeyes’ attack. But it also was because the starting forwards, Hart and Shayla Cooper, were a dreadful 3-of-22 combined from the field.
McGuff certainly hopes that’s an aberration attributable to this being the season opener on the road against a formidable front line. But it won’t get easier in Ohio State’s next matchup on Monday (ESPN2, 5:30 p.m. ET) against top-ranked UConn with the likes of Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck inside.
“Hopefully, this will give us a little bit of belief; we played toe-to-toe with one of the very best teams in the country,” McGuff said. “But it’s really about how we approach [Saturday] and Sunday in practice. If it’s ‘woe is me,’ then Monday is not going to go well. But if we can take the things we didn’t do well, get better, and apply them Monday night, then we’re going to take a stab at the No. 1 team in the country.”
“We played toe-to-toe with one of the very best teams in the country.”
OSU coach Kevin McGuff, whose team now readies to face No. 1 UConn
South Carolina will learn from Friday, too. Even though the Gamecocks’ All-American player is a guard in Tiffany Mitchell, their biggest strength is their post game. They rebounded well; transfer Sarah Imovbioh joined Wilson and Coates in the double-digit board category with 10. Imovbioh was the ACC’s top rebounder last year with Virginia and helps fill in the loss of Aleighsa Welch to graduation.
But the Gamecocks didn’t go inside as much as they could have, and even when they did, their timing wasn’t as sharp as it will be as the season progresses.
“Our posts are our best passers to each other,” Staley said. “I am glad that they were able to make some connections. And I’m glad also that they weren’t [always] able to make a connection, so they could see what they need to correct.”
One person who saw those things clearly was sitting right behind South Carolina’s bench: Phoenix Mercury standout Candice Dupree. She played for Staley at Temple and is taking a little time off before going overseas to play. That gave her the opportunity to come to Columbia for the first time to see what Staley has built here.
“She’s got some big, athletic kids, and they get up and down the floor really well,” said Dupree, who also attended the Final Four at her home base of Tampa, Florida, to see the Gamecocks last spring. “Counter-moves will be a big thing to develop for them. There were some times I think the guards might have missed them with mismatches inside. But they’re aggressive, and they don’t stop.”
As for the atmosphere Friday — the celebratory tone of which was set as the South Carolina players and staff got rings for their SEC championship and Final Four appearance — Dupree loved the experience.
“It’s amazing here,” she said. “They have such a good fan base, and it’s great to see how much they respect coach Staley and the players.”
It has been something that has continued to grow here, and it’s what Ohio State is working on in Columbus, too. From a big-picture perspective, Friday’s game said a lot of positive about the future of women’s basketball.
But even just from the perspective of what to look forward to in 2015-16, it said a great deal, too.