For young Gamecocks, growing pains are inevitable. Tough UNC win shows signs of progress

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South Carolina has stunned the women’s college basketball world through the first six games of the season.

First, five blowouts: two record-setting games (largest margin of victory over a ranked opponent in program history against then-No. 14 Maryland; largest margin of victory in program history against Mississippi Valley State) and four featuring 100-plus-point performances (100 vs. then-No. 10 Notre Dame; 114 vs. Maryland; 109 vs. Clemson; and 101 vs. MVSU).

The No. 1 Gamecocks seemed like an unstoppable force heading into their ACC/SEC Challenge matchup Thursday against the No. 24 North Carolina Tar Heels. But after one half of basketball, it looked like USC might have finally met its immovable object.

“You really saw how young we are,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “I didn’t think that we met the moment in the first half.”

In the end, it was UNC that moved. The Gamecocks, down 11 at one point, clawed their way back to beat the Tar Heels 65-58 in (objectively) USC’s ugliest game of the season.

Potentially lost in all the excitement of South Carolina’s hunter-to-hunted, preseason No. 6-to-unanimous No. 1 story is its youth — an element Staley singled out after the win.

And with youth comes growing pains. The UNC game was a big one: eight assists to 13 turnovers; 39 rebounds to UNC’s 45; and a season-low 20 points in the paint (compared with the 62.8 average the team had going into Carmichael Arena on Thursday). But USC (6-0) still won.

It may have been painful. But it was also progress.

“They’ve got the dominant starter kit,” Staley said. “So they’re not there yet, but they’re a work in progress. And I do think they understand what we’re saying, that dominant just doesn’t happen overnight.”

The South Carolina bench reacts following a made basket during the second half of the Gamecocks’ 65-58 win over North Carolina on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The South Carolina bench reacts following a made basket during the second half of the Gamecocks’ 65-58 win over North Carolina on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Local and national media alike questioned what this program could do in 2023-24 having lost the beloved (and wildly successful) Freshies recruiting class to graduation and the WNBA Draft. Who would fill that experience vacuum? With five new faces between freshmen and transfers, how long would it take for the team to mesh? And would outside shooting remain an issue?

Then the Gamecocks played two games against top-15 opponents and demolished their opponents. Those questions suddenly faded from view and made way for bold declarations seeking to forecast how good this team is and would prove to be by season’s end.

“I actually think they’re better than last year’s team,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said Nov. 12.

The UNC game doesn’t necessarily prove Frese wrong, or anyone else who’s all-in on the hype surrounding South Carolina this season. Last year’s team went to overtime twice against then-No 2 Stanford and unranked Ole Miss, pulling through both times. The seven-point margin of victory over UNC was simply a bump in the road on this team’s journey toward self-discovery.

The Gamecocks learned poise Thursday night, junior guard Bree Hall said.

With four minutes left on the game clock, she told the team it could do anything for that amount of time (namely, maintain its tight lead). Then one minute remained. But one minute turned into five minutes, then 10 — or, so it felt.

Leadership has been a huge emphasis for Hall since the Freshies left Columbia and the 2023 offseason began. Last month she talked about how she calls Gamecock great Aliyah Boston nearly every day to ask for advice. In addition to having her first 15-point game of the season Thursday night, Hall said she felt like she took a big, less tangible step forward in her game.

“One of the biggest things I learned is that I can lead in an environment like this, and I can use my voice and my calmness,” Hall said. “I know I’ve said that I don’t really feel like I’m as vocal (of a leader), but I feel like, in situations like this, I can use my voice.”

The basketball world was exposed to a new aspect of South Carolina’s identity: grit. The Gamecocks passed their first test of the season. And Staley is pleased, enough, with their performance.

“They had fight. They competed,” Staley said. “They’re young. They make mistakes. But it’s all in an effort of trying to win basketball games. And I tip my hat off to them for that.”