By Jeff Owens | Photo by Allen Sharpe
CHARLOTTE — With South Carolina off to a slow start and struggling early against No. 13 seed Belmont Friday, two of its top players remained on the bench.
When forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore did not enter the game in the first half, Gamecock Nation knew something was up.
Herbert Harrigan, who started 21 games this year, did not play in the first half and played only 10 minutes of the second half, scoring five points. Cuevas-Moore, who started 16 games and was a catalyst offensively and defensively in the second half of the season, did not play.
“I decided not to play them, for a half and for the entire game,” head coach Dawn Staley said afterward. “Obviously something happened, I’m just not going to divulge that information.”
“Basically, it was just coach’s decision,” Cuevas-Moore told Spurs & Feathers.
Without two of its key players, South Carolina’s veteran players stepped up, leading the No. 4 seed Gamecocks to a 74-52 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Junior guard Te’a Cooper led the team with 13 points while senior Alexis Jennings and junior Ty Harris added 12 each. Senior Doniyah Cliney added 10 in a balanced scoring attack.
Cliney and freshman guard Destanni Henderson (five points, two assists) moved into the starting lineup as Staley used her seventh different starting lineup in the past eight games.
South Carolina’s depth paid off Friday as Staley has become accustomed to using different players in different roles this season.
“It’s something we have done all season long. We have played different people at different times for one reason or another,” she said. “Everybody that has started with those seven lineup changes, they understand it’s how you prepare and who matches up better. It’s a luxury to have that but it also causes some inconsistency, but I’d rather have it like this than not have enough to be able to go out there and play people just because we don’t have enough bodies.
“I like the chemistry the team has and I like the fact that it can be a competitive environment to where if you are not playing to the best of your ability on any given day, somebody else is right there to step in and play.”
Staley declined to say whether Herbert Harrigan or Cuevas-Moore would play in the second round Sunday or how much they will play going forward.
“As for right now, we are going to keep moving, moving in this direction,” she said. “If you work with young people, things happen. … I will tell you what I told them in the locker room. I have moved past my decision not to play them … so we are moving forward as if we have everybody on board.”
With Herbert Harrigan out, Jennings stepped up in the low post, dominating the first half. She had nine rebounds to go with her 12 points.
For her, the challenge Friday was erasing the bitter taste of South Carolina’s quarter-final loss in the SEC Tournament, which Staley’s team had won four straight times prior to this season.
“We are a different team than we were two weeks ago and we have something to prove to people,” Jennings said. “I feel like a lot of people counted us out and we just have to stay on the same track and stay in tune with each other and I feel like we are unstoppable when we do that.”
Staley was happy with her team’s performance after a week of hard practices after the SEC Tournament loss.
“We had great practices after our SEC tournament exit and they were very much like what you saw out there today,” she said. “It was good to see us be able to transition from a practice to a game and do it for the entire 40 minutes. It wasn’t perfect basketball but it was the style and energy we need to continue to win at a high level.
“Hopefully we can continue with this kind of energy.”
— Josh Hyber contributed to this report.