By Josh Hyber | Photo by Jenny Dilworth
CHARLOTTE — South Carolina won’t be going 0-1 in this tournament.
Not even close. Not with the defensive effort it promised to display working wonders.
On Friday inside Halton Arena on the campus of UNC Charlotte, No. 4 South Carolina (22-9) clamped down, locked in and routed No. 13 seed Belmont (26-7) 74-52 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks forced 17 turnovers, blocked six shots and had six steals en route to the 22-point victory.
Guard Te’a Cooper led SC with 13 points and four rebounds while Alexis Jennings had 12 points and nine rebounds and Ty Harris added 12 points and six assists.
Darby Maggard led Belmont with 13 points.
The Gamecocks advance to play No. 5 seed Florida State, a team that advanced by beating No. 12 seed Bucknell on Friday, on Sunday. A time for the game has not been announced.
South Carolina took a 13-point lead into halftime thanks in large part to a defensive statement that held Belmont scoreless for seven minutes and two seconds. The Gamecocks forced nine turnovers, swiped three steals and blocked two shots in the half.
Belmont had zero second-chance points, zero points off SC’s five turnovers and shot 2 of 11 from 3-point range.
“[It was all] ball pressure, denying the next pass and trapping,” Harris said.
Added Cooper, “We were communicating. If someone didn’t rotate right, we took care of it. We were playing together and we had each other’s backs.”
The Bruins scored just three points in the second quarter, the least amount of points the Gamecocks have allowed in a single quarter in program history.
Maggard and fellow Belmont guard Jenny Roy paused for five seconds when asked what South Carolina’s defense did during the frame.
“Maybe we can [answer] that together,” Roy said. “Together we can solve that riddle.
“… They got up in us. And we had open looks. We just didn’t knock them down.”
“Their motto is that they want to turn their defense into their offense, and I feel like they did that today,” Maggard said.
“… They’re big. They’re long. They’re athletic.”
Belmont’s Maura Muensterman sank a left-corner 3 to cut the Bruin deficit to eight early in the third quarter, but Cooper answered with one of her own and then banked in a layup on a fast break to push South Carolina’s lead to 13, at 36-23.
But as Maggard said, it was the Gamecocks’ defense that led to its offense.
Harris forced Roy to dribble out of bounds moments before Henderson swished a 3. Jennings then took a charge moments before Harris swished a jumper to make it 41-25 at the 5:27 mark of the third quarter.
Two minutes later Harris hit one of her own from beyond the arc and Bianca Jackson floated in a layup to give the Gamecocks a 47-28 with 3:09 to play.
Just like that the lead was 21 points. The rout was on.
Belmont called timeout, and the garnet-heavy crowd voiced its approval.
The defensive effort remained. Harris was called for a foul after she clearly blocked a 3-point attempt. The crowd booed heavily as the junior stood in front of the Belmont bench with a blank stare.
“What?” she mouthed.
Henderson drew a charge on the ensuing possession, Harris knocked down a 3 and Doniyah Cliney swiped a steal and dribbled in for a breakaway layup before the quarter came to a close with the Gamecocks leading by 24, at 60-36.
“It wasn’t perfect basketball, but it was the style, the grittiness and the energy we need to continue to play at a high level and win at a high level,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said.
It showed from the outset.
Henderson, who earned her seventh start of the season, dove for a loose ball in the opening minutes. Cliney blocked a shot, and Cooper and Jennings jumpers gave the Gamecocks an 8-6 lead at the 5:56 mark of the first quarter. Harris free throws and back-to-back Cliney layups pushed it to 14-8 with 3:18 to play.
Belmont called timeout.
But South Carolina began the second quarter on a 6-0 run, a surge that was started on a nice post-to-post, LeLe Grissett to Jennings score.
The Gamecock defense continued to clamp down.
Jennings blocked a shot, then the 5-10 Harris forced a jump ball while fighting for possession on the floor with Belmont 6-1 center Maddie Wright. Cliney then forced Wright to travel. Belmont ended the seven-plus-minute scoring drought on a Conley Chinn 3-pointer from the right wing at the 3:21 mark.
Said Harris, “We’ve been competing for the past two weeks in practice. We wanted to see how it would work for us in a game. And it worked for us.”