Few words can describe the feeling of giving the top-ranked team in the nation everything they can handle just to fall in the waning seconds. #21 South Carolina played #1 Stanford down to the wire, but two crucial missed free throws down the stretch coupled with crucial free throws made by Stanford’s Toni Kokenis was the difference as Stanford emerged with a 53-49 win Wednesday night at the Colonial Life Arena.
“I thought they played extremely well and executed the game plan,” Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “We knew it would come down to our ability to get buckets and we just fell short. We outshot them and got more opportunities at the basket, but we couldn’t put it in.”
Carolina was able to attempt 16 more shots than Stanford due in large part to outhustling the Cardinal. Despite an overwhelming height disadvantage, Carolina was able to hustle their way to 13 offensive rebounds and forced Stanford into a season-high 18 turnovers. That allowed the Gamecocks to stay in the game despite shooting just 29% from the floor.
“If you can’t score you can’t pull away,” Aleighsa Welch said. “We wanted to make sure we kept the game close by continuing to get stops since the first half scoring wasn’t coming too easy. If we made a stop and couldn’t come down and get a bucket, we knew we had to come back down and get another stop because we couldn’t allow them to come down and pile up bucket after bucket without us having a counterpunch to that.”
Welch was a bright spot for Carolina, particularly in the second half where she scored 13 of her team-high 17 points, narrowly missing a new career-high against the #1 team in the country and one of the best players in the country in Chiney Ogwumike.
“I think I showed myself I’m able to do it against the best of the best teams,” Welch said of her performance. “I think I’m more confident as a player now. To come out and have a game like this but to still know that there are still areas I can improve on is a positive thing for me.”
Both teams battled dry spells throughout the first half as the two defenses went at each other. Stanford made it a priority to get the ball to Chiney Ogwumike, as they do every game, but Carolina was up to the challenge. Knowing they were severely undersized against Ogwumike, help defense was a key as hands came flying in each time Ogwumike touched the ball. Stanford would build an early 14-7 lead but Carolina rallied with eight straight to take a 15-14 lead. At a time when the game could have spiraled out of control, the Gamecocks were able to battle back and stay within striking distance as the Cardinal took a 24-19 lead to the locker room.
After constantly trying to drive to the basket and get the ball down to the post only to have their shot blocked or redirected, Carolina changed it up a bit in the second half. Staley brought Welch and Ashley Bruner to the perimeter to pull the Stanford bigs up and use their speed against them. They worked as Welch had a great half and the Gamecocks went to the free throw line 11 times after just three in the first half.
“That was one of the keys to pull their post players out from the basket and use our speed to drive around them,” Staley said. “Aleighsa had great success with it.”
The two teams would go nearly three minutes without a basket in the second half before Kokenis scored on a layup to give the Cardinal a 26-21 lead. Carolina would keep battling back, but each time Stanford would have an answer as they clung to the lead most of the half. Carolina would make a run and would take a 42-40 lead on an Ieasia Walker three pointer with 4:32 left in the game. However, when you are the top team in the country you don’t stay down long. Stanford proved while they are the best as Amber Orrange quickly scored the other way to tie it again. After Sancheon White gave Carolina the lead again, but Ogwumike answered on the next trip down with a three point play to give the Cardinal the lead for good.
“It showed the potential of the team that we played a great game,” Welch said. “There’s not one person on the team that I’m not extremely proud of. Everybody stepped up and came out and played their part to help in different ways. I feel like now we can take this game and set it as a bar of how we need to play to get to where we want to get. We can’t have any setbacks from here on out.”
Free throw shooting has been the achilles heel of this team the past two seasons and it reared its ugly head again Wednesday night. After Ogwumike’s three point play, Welch was fouled and sent to the line. Welch could make just one of two to tie the game. After a Stanford basket, Ieasia Walker was sent to the line, where she made just one free throw. Kokenis was sent to the line six times after the Walker missed free throw in the final minute and convert on all six. Despite that, Stanford was held to well under their season average as they came in as one of the best scoring teams in the nation.
“Anytime you can shave 25 points off their average you’re doing your job,” Staley said. “I thought we made it difficult on them to score in their comfort areas and they really had to think about when they took shots. We did a good job of not letting them be as efficient as they normally are.”
Carolina, now 10-1 on the year, has a quick turnaround as they host South Carolina State Friday afternoon at noon. It’s hard to come off such an emotional game with just a day and a half between games, but Staley believes her team will be fine after having a similar performances over Thanksgiving.
“We played three tough games in the Virgin Islands so I think mentally our players are prepared for the battle that we will have tomorrow and be ready for South Carolina State on Friday afternoon,” Staley said.
“I think the only way we make this make sense, meaning the whole moral victory, is if we beat the teams we’re supposed to beat and win some games in our conference that most people think we shouldn’t win. We didn’t shock the world but I think the nation understands the type of basketball that we play here at South Carolina. I just hope the people that came out will come out and see us because I think we put a product on the court that they could cheer loud for and be proud of.”