GREENVILLE, S.C. — The Maryland Terrapins spent Sunday afternoon in rehearsal for their big moment. The starters and rotation players drilled against the practice squad, four college-aged men and one woman who wore red jerseys and simulated the part of the South Carolina Gamecocks. The Terps would stop and listen as associate head coach Karen Blair shared the instruction not to overthink on defense. Then as play continued, they would show the energy — tracking the ball, waving their arms — they will need for their Monday night matchup.
So many other teams have this shared experience: a practice the day before facing South Carolina. Since Nov. 9, 2021, South Carolina has played 58 opponents — 30 last season, 28 this season. On their way to the 2022 NCAA championship and during their current undefeated season, the Gamecocks have taken down 56 of those challengers, including Maryland in November. Only two teams have gone from practicing to beat South Carolina to actually beating the best program in women’s college basketball.
“What a really awesome opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country and a team that’s had so much success,” said Missouri Coach Robin Pingeton, whose unranked Tigers shocked No. 1 South Carolina on Dec. 30, 2021.
“When I hear that on TV, it’s still surreal to me,” said Kentucky Coach Kyra Elzy, whose 2021-22 Wildcats are the answer to the trivia question: Who was the last team to beat the Gamecocks?
On Sunday, the only two coaches in America who know what it takes to beat Dawn Staley’s machine, at least over the last two years, shared some insight.
Both have intimate knowledge about South Carolina; as conference rivals, they’re saddled with at least one game against the Gamecocks on the schedule. Last year, Kentucky had the added benefit of playing them three times. The Wildcats lost the first meeting by 20 points and the next one by nine. But on March 6, 2022, they prevailed when it mattered most, with Dre’Una Edwards draining the go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds of the SEC tournament championship game.
Months earlier, when South Carolina visited Columbia, Mo., Pingeton’s team had just eight available players because of coronavirus protocols. The Gamecocks were bigger, faster and more athletic, and yet Lauren Hansen drove around three South Carolina players to score the game-winning layup.
Both teams pulled off the improbable — but how?
Maryland Coach Brenda Frese would never ask Pingeton or Elzy for advice. Or, if we’re being honest, she’d never read a newspaper article in search of a South Carolina scouting report. But just for amusement, let’s pretend the Terps can learn something from those Kentucky and Missouri teams.
Lesson No. 1: Respect the Gamecocks; don’t fear them.
While Elzy was growing up in love with basketball, she had one particular hero.
“I grew up wearing Coach Staley’s number; I had her on my wall,” said Elzy, who refers to her current peer as “Coach” and not Dawn. “So she was a big inspiration for me.”
Before Elzy went off to Tennessee and played for the dominant team of women’s hoops in that era, she remembers when Staley spoke to her all-star team. The roots of admiration run deep, but when Elzy faces Staley now, she doesn’t see her childhood hero. She sees a rival.
“She has been a legend in my eyes for a long time. So I have a great respect for her. But do not get me wrong — when we’re playing, I’m trying to beat Coach Staley,” Elzy said. “It was just a great feat when we did it in the SEC tournament.”
Okay, so opponents must shelve the reverence. Next, the tactical component comes into play. All-American Aliyah Boston performs as the 6-foot-5 double-double machine. The other senior starting forward, Victaria Saxton, stands 6-2, and if either big needs a break, here comes 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the size that they have,” Frese said. “Obviously, to be undefeated and to look at the depth and the size that they have, you bring the players off the bench, and they just even get better. It’s pretty impressive to be able to see. It’s got to rank up there as one of the best when you talk about all the size being on their roster.”
Immediately following their Sweet 16 win over Notre Dame, Maryland players seemed to understand the upcoming challenge with the Gamecocks. Senior Faith Masonius already knew she and others would have to front their bigs in the paint. Surely, Maryland could get burned by lobs — when a guard tosses an entry pass over the top — but Masonius explained how that might have to be the risk defenders take. The alternative wouldn’t be much better.
“If I get buried into the post, it’s a lot of work,” Masonius said. “It gets tiring, so you always have to make sure you’re staying one step ahead, so they can’t bury you down and get what they want.”
Because South Carolina would own this advantage in the half-court, Pingeton cannot stress this enough: To combat the Gamecocks’ size advantage, teams have to push the tempo.
“Playing with pace is huge. We couldn’t match their athleticism, we couldn’t match their quickness, and so that pace was something really big for us,” said Pingeton, whose Tigers allowed 20 offensive rebounds that night but remained competitive partially because of their pace.
“We knew rebounding we were going to have some challenges,” Pingeton continued, “but we just had to be willing to be gritty and tough and resilient.”
Finally, to oversimplify what most other teams have tried but failed to do, beating South Carolina takes resilience. A late three-pointer (that led to Kentucky’s win) or a layup with less than a second remaining (such as Missouri’s winner) may seem lucky, but both teams would not have been that close had they not weathered South Carolina’s dominance. On Monday, Maryland will look to join a small club of underdogs that have stood up to the Gamecocks.
“Since Day One, we’ve been writing our story. We’ve been the underdogs in any big top-10 matchup, and we’ve proved people wrong by beating the great teams by not just 10 but [huge] double digits,” Maryland senior Abby Meyers said. “In any case, I think we’re just going to stick to us, stick to our support system, to the people that have believed in us since Day One, and we’re going to use that as energy for tomorrow.”