COLUMBIA, SC — Defending national champion South Carolina has been the No. 1 team in women’s basketball since the preseason. It also now stands as the only unbeaten team in Division I college hoops.
The Gamecocks defeated No. 3 LSU 88-64 Sunday before a packed Colonial Life Arena, handing the Tigers their first defeat of the season. South Carolina is now 25-0 and 12-0 in the SEC, while LSU drops to 23-1 and 11-1.
“The energy in the building — it really helps,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, whose team has led the nation in attendance the past eight seasons. “Our fans are students of the game. They understand how we created our success, and it’s on the backbone of playing defense.
“It’s great to play against a top-three team in the country in this type of environment, and the buildup. We’re competing with Super Bowl coverage. I thought [this game] was highly publicized and a lot of people were anticipating watching the game.”
In a matchup of two national championship coaches — Staley has two titles with the Gamecocks and LSU’s Kim Mulkey three with Baylor — the home team got off to a hot start and the visitors from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, were never quite able to catch up
Philadelphia native Staley sported a No. 12 Randall Cunningham jersey on the sideline to support her beloved Eagles ahead of Sunday night’s Super Bowl. Mulkey wore a pink suit in honor of it being a “Play 4 Kay” game in support of breast cancer awareness and fundraising. Fans were lined up outside the arena more than two hours before the game, one of the most anticipated this college season.
It started looking like a mismatch, though, as South Carolina raced to an 18-2 lead and was up 24-15 after one quarter after shooting 66.7% in the first 10 minutes. LSU whittled its way back into the game, though, led by guard Alexis Morris, who had 15 of her team-high 23 points in the first half.
However, LSU star forward Angel Reese picked up two first-quarter fouls and was limited to just three first-half points. Reese, who had a double-double in each of the Tigers’ first 23 games, had that streak snapped as she finished with 16 points on 5-of-15 shooting and four rebounds.
“I’ll give my utmost respect and comments about how good they are, how big they are, how tall they are,” Mulkey said. “It’s South Carolina, in my opinion, and everyone else. After playing them today, my opinion on that has not changed. They have things that we don’t have and a lot of the teams in the country don’t have. We aspire to be there one day.”
Whatever debate there might have been about the 2023 SEC Player of the Year was answered by the reigning SEC and national player of the year, South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston. She finished with 14 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocked shots, and was largely responsible for making Reese’s day as difficult as it was. Boston, expected to be the No. 1 pick in April’s WNBA draft, is the anchor of the best defense in the women’s college game, and LSU struggled against it.
“We know it’s a big SEC matchup because LSU is a great team,” Boston said. “I definitely think the media was all hyped up, which was good, because it drew everybody to watch this game.”
South Carolina took a 64-48 lead into the final period after a 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer by perimeter defensive specialist Brea Beal. It was a sign that just about everything was going the Gamecocks’ way.
South Carolina’s high-quality depth, one of the biggest storylines of this season, came through again. Center Kamilla Cardoso led the Gamecocks with 18 points and 13 rebounds, while guard Zia Cooke had 17 points. Beal finished with 11 points and four assists, and fellow guard Raven Johnson had 10 points.
“I’ve always said [Kamilla] is a difference-maker. She’s a separator,” Staley said. “If we don’t get her production, it’s probably a lot closer game than what it was. She’s a hard guard, and when we have her and Aliyah in at the same time, you have to guard them player-for-player and not necessarily double.”
LSU, in Mulkey’s second season with the program, got criticized for its weak nonconference schedule. But that’s also water under the bridge, as the Tigers are poised, as they were last year, to be the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament. They are a game ahead of Tennessee (10-2), who are in third place. Tennessee still has to face South Carolina, on Feb. 23.
“Be thankful that LSU was on this stage,” Mulkey said. “Who in the world would have thought that we would be at this stage in Year 2 of rebuilding the program?”
South Carolina, which lost one game in SEC regular-season play last season, has four games left this season to run the table and head into the league tournament unbeaten. That event, like one of two NCAA regionals this season, is in Greenville, South Carolina.
The Gamecocks are the projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and would have stayed there regardless of Sunday’s outcome. But with two wins over top-five teams in a week — South Carolina beat then-No. 5 UConn 81-77 on Feb. 5 in Hartford, Connecticut — the Gamecocks have even further solidified their front-runner status for the national championship again.
“I think there’s a lot for us going forward,” Boston said. “We play disciplined, we play as a team. I think we’re just continuing to grow, so I’m really proud of us.”