Only one unbeaten team in Division I college basketball will be left after this weekend. But will it be No. 1 South Carolina or No. 3 LSU? The Gamecocks (24-0) and Tigers (23-0) meet Sunday (2 pm ET, ESPN/ESPN App) at a sold-out Colonial Life Arena in South Carolina in one of the most anticipated games of the women’s basketball season. Both teams are 11-0 in the SEC.
The Gamecocks are the defending national champions and are on a 30-game winning streak. They are coming off a victory over UConn last Sunday and a win Thursday against Auburn.
LSU walked a tightrope last week with three close wins, including one in overtime. But the Tigers are still undefeated and looking for their first victory against the Gamecocks since 2012. LSU leads the series 22-17, but South Carolina has won the past 13 in a row.
It’s a big individual matchup, too, as South Carolina senior Aliyah Boston and LSU sophomore Angel Reese face off. Along with Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, they are considered the front-runners for the national player of the year awards.
Reese has a double-double in every Tigers game this season, with 23 in a row. That’s four behind Boston’s 27 straight, a record set last season for the longest double-double streak by an SEC player. Boston has 76 double-doubles, third in SEC history behind former LSU star Sylvia Fowles’ 86 from 2004 to 2008.
South Carolina has won or tied for the SEC regular-season championship six of the past nine seasons under coach Dawn Staley. LSU, which last won the regular-season title in 2008, finished second in the SEC last year in coach Kim Mulkey’s first season with the Tigers.
Sunday, one will emerge as the favorite for the 2023 SEC regular-season title. We break down the game and predict the winner.
How will Boston and Reese match up? Will Reese keep her double-double streak intact?
Creme: The star is already shining brightly on Reese, but a big game and a win on Sunday would be the moment This will also be her biggest challenge. Given LSU’s weak nonconference schedule for the first half of the season, the skilled 6-foot-3 Reese was easily the most physically imposing and gifted player on the court. The SEC season was a step up in opponents’ size and strength, and playing Big Ten teams last season at Maryland meant Reese played against physical teams. However, South Carolina, and in particular Boston, presents a completely different challenge. Reese should still get her numbers, but they will be harder to come by. As is so often the case with Boston, she might give a little ground early, but by game’s end she tends to have the upper hand. I suspect she will wear down Reese in much the same way.
Vöpel: Reese’s rebounding is one of the most impressive things we have seen this college season. It’s not just her leaping ability, but the fact she can powerfully snare rebounds one-handed and has such a nose for the ball. The 6-foot-3 forward is second in Division I and first among Power 5 players in rebounding at 15.8 per game. So the double-double streak will likely continue.
Boston really hasn’t had that many big-time challenges this season simply because few players are near her caliber and she and the Gamecocks have dominated so many of their games. So she is likely to relish this opportunity. As Charlie said, the 6-foot-5 Boston is the most relentless post player defensively in the country. Reese will not only have to deal with Boston, but all the defenders the Gamecocks can bring, including 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso.
What’s the single biggest key or X factor that will determine this matchup?
Creme: LSU needs to get production out of at least two other players beyond Reese, and Alexis Morris must be one of them. The Tigers don’t necessarily need a big scoring night from Morris; the goal is for her to control the game when she has the ball, be efficient, lead the transition game and get her teammates open shots. South Carolina already manufactures extra possessions with its offensive rebounding, so LSU — particularly Morris and Kateri Poole — can’t turn over the ball and create even more opportunities for the Gamecocks. Raven Johnson played well against UConn and has become a much more important part of the South Carolina attack, but if LSU doesn’t win the point guard matchup, the path to victory is going to be very difficult.
Zia Cooke has her defender sliding with a sweet crossover
Zia Cooke crosses the defender and then knocks down the jumper in the third quarter.
Vöpel: Indeed, turnovers could be very big in this game. South Carolina has a lot of ways to force them, and then really take advantage. The Gamecocks are the deepest team in the country, and that goes to the way Staley has built a championship favorite. There are South Carolina players who could be bigger individual stars elsewhere, but fit in perfectly for their roles on a team this good. That means opponents just can’t afford many mistakes against them, because they won’t be able to overcome giving South Carolina too many chances for easier points.
“It’s probably the most frustrating thing in my coaching — unnecessary turnovers,” Mulkey said. “You’ve got to be stronger with the ball in your hands, you’ve got to make good decisions and you can’t make soft passes.”
What did LSU see in Sunday’s South Carolina-UConn clash that could help topple the No. 1 Gamecocks this week?
Creme: UConn’s first-half defensive performance Sunday provided a blueprint for the best approach to playing the Gamecocks: The Huskies crowded the paint and were content letting South Carolina’s guards shoot jump shots. It worked — for a while. The Gamecocks shot 34.2% from the field in the first half while limiting Boston’s touches (she was 0-for-5 from the field in the first half).
However, the strategy isn’t foolproof because South Carolina is just that good and can adapt. Even if Johnson, Brea Beal and Zia Cooke keep missing, it’s meaningless if Boston and Cardoso repeatedly grab those misses. Eventually, the size and rebounding acumen of South Carolina wore down the smaller Huskies. Boston had 23 points and eight rebounds after halftime and the Gamecocks finished with 25 second-chance points. Nevertheless, the strategy should remain the same for the Tigers. Executing the game plan for 40 minutes against South Carolina’s relentlessness is the true challenge.
Vöpel: LSU is facing a similar thing UConn did in that game: For one of the rare times this season, the Tigers are underdogs. UConn tried to tap into that energy and did pretty well with it, although not enough to win.
Mulkey is trying, to some extent, to temper expectations because she knows how challenging South Carolina is.
“I don’t see it as a rivalry; no one’s on their level. They’re that good,” Mulkey said of the matchup this year.
Still, Mulkey is excited about the challenge and is glad LSU is involved in such a marquee game.
What’s at stake from a Bracketology standpoint?
Morris speaks on LSU’s win vs. Aggies, next matchup
Alexis Morris talks about the No. 3 Tigers’ performance in the 72-66 win against Texas A&M and says they are ready to take on No. 1 South Carolina.
Creme: This is LSU’s moment. Any discussion about the Tigers’ weak non-conference schedule goes away with a win over the best team in the country. LSU would no longer be a mystery, and a win Sunday would make the Tigers worthy of a No. 1 seed. Even a good performance in a loss would say plenty.
If LSU competes against South Carolina similarly to the way UConn did last Sunday, it will also answer the question of whether the Tigers are truly among the nation’s elite. That, plus an unblemished run the rest of the way, or at least until a potential SEC tournament final rematch with the Gamecocks, and some help elsewhere — Stanford stumbling against a difficult schedule or UConn unable to restore its level of play from a few months ago — would be enough for LSU to end up a No. 1 seed come Selection Sunday.
Which team wins?
Vöpel: Look to the Gamecocks to protect the house. South Carolina hasn’t lost at home since Dec. 3, 2020, against NC State. It’s the only time the Gamecocks have fallen at Colonial Life Arena in the past four seasons, counting this one. Saying they are invincible there might be a tad too much, but it’s close. Nobody has beaten them anywhere this season, and that will continue.
Creme: Sunday’s result means more to LSU in the big picture, but let’s not forget this game will essentially decide the SEC title. That is foremost on the minds of the Gamecocks. With that much at stake and the backing of the crowd in Columbia, South Carolina, it has to be the pick — and the margin will be double digits.