COLUMBIA, S.C. — With almost 8 minutes to play in the first half Sunday, Dawn Staley was in the uncomfortable position of having her pair of All-SEC bigs on the bench in foul trouble.
The South Carolina coach had a feeling it would work out just fine for the No. 6 Gamecocks, though. She watched the UCLA frontline playing minutes, getting tired against a smaller South Carolina lineup that whittled away at the Bruins’ lead, while senior Alaina Coates and junior A’ja Wilson rested on the bench.
When the Gamecocks needed a burst coming out of halftime, Staley was confident her team would have it.
“They didn’t have the mileage they normally have in the first half, not playing that much,” Staley said. “We knew coming out of halftime that we were going to get the ball to them on the block and they were going to be effective, just because we had exhausted their post play in the first half. It worked to perfection.”
Coates and Wilson combined or 26 second-half points, with Coates chipping in 13 in the third quarter alone, as the Gamecocks rallied back from a lackluster first half to take a 66-57 win against No. 9 UCLA.
Coming out of halftime, the Gamecocks went inside early and often against a UCLA front court in foul trouble and playing long minutes. Coates scored the first 5 third-quarter points, as South Carolina imposed its will in the paint.
Coates, who finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds, said there was a concerted effort made to feed the ball down low, and that is when the game swung for the Gamecocks.
“It definitely feels like you can impose your will, especially since we were either making the bucket or getting the foul call,” she said. “We were picking up on free throws. It was something that we all know collectively knew could work for us and it was going to put us ahead in that type of way. I’m just glad that we picked up on that.”
With energy on its side and the game turning, South Carolina burst out to a 15-3 run to open the second half.
It was a stark contrast to the way USC opened the game, as UCLA had its way early on, playing with more aggression as South Carolina struggled from the field. Coates said it wasn’t an issue of taking bad shots, more that the shots they took weren’t falling. USC was 2 of 15 from the field to open the game, while UCLA took an early lead despite its slow start.
“They came out speeding like bullets,” Coates said. “That was just something we were not prepared for. We were ready to go, but we were not expecting them to come out like track stars. …
“I think for some of us, it definitely took us a minute to get hit and busted in the lip a couple times before we realized just how aggressive they were going to be before we were able to go down and get into our basketball.”
That happened in the third quarter, when Coates and Wilson returned to the floor. The duo dominated for the second straight game, scoring and rebounding misses and scoring off those to which UCLA coach Cori Close said, “They played like women.”
“We knew exactly what they were going to do and we couldn’t stop it,” Close said. “They imposed their will. … I do think they have the best frontline in the country.”