March Madness: Bench play key to South Carolina's success
By PETE IACOBELLI
GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) South Carolina certainly has front-line, championship talent with All-American Aliyah Boston and top scorer Zia Cooke. And they're backed by a bench that's second-to-none in the women's game.
“It’s not just the starting five that can make things happen,” Cooke said.
The Gamecocks' reserves lead the nation in bench points at 36.6 per game. Kamilla Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 SEC sixth woman of the year, is third on the team in scoring with an average of 9.7 points without starting once.
Laeticia Amihere, part of the heralded recruiting class four years ago with starters Boston, Cooke and Brea Beal, is fourth in scoring at 7.3 points in 16.3 minutes per game - also without a start.
Reserve point guard Raven Johnson leads with 116 assists and 37 steals in limited action.
“It’s always like, 'Oh, we’re coming off the bench,'” Gamecocks sophomore Bree Hall said. “No, that’s not how we think. We go out there, and we think, ‘Let’s go out there and go hard and bring whatever we can to the table.’”
The Gamecocks (34-0) continue their chase of an undefeated season and second straight national championship at the Greenville 1 Regional, about 90 minutes from campus. South Carolina, which has won 40 straight games, takes on fourth-seeded UCLA (27-9) on Saturday.
Second-seeded Maryland (27-6) faces No. 3 seed Notre Dame (27-5) in the other regional semifinal contest. The winners play Monday night for a trip to the Final Four in Dallas.
Much of this four-team pod relies on its benches.
UCLA is 37th nationally with its reserves scoring 23.5 points per game. Maryland is 46th in the country at 22.9 points from its bench players, and Notre Dame is 112th at 19.5 points from backups.
UCLA coach Cori Close said championship programs are built on the loyalty and sacrifice of talented players accepting a lesser role.
"Credit to the commitment of those kids that would be starting and getting lots of minutes on a lot of other rosters," she said.
The Gamecocks roster features nine McDonald's All-Americans, six who come off the bench. The talent-rich team leads the nation with 30.6-point margin of victory this season.
Boston has averaged 25 minutes a game this season, fewer than the past two seasons. Having skilled backups has given her more rest time and left her fresher for finishes, if necessary.
“They come in and they dominate, which is really good,” she said.
Notre Dame is moving forward despite losing do-it-all guard Olivia Miles to a season-ending knee injury during the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament this month. Her injury followed a similar one by another Fighting Irish starter Dara Mabrey in January, costing the team its starting backcourt.
Still, the Irish are back in the Sweet 16 and looking for more, even without those two players, who combined to average 24 points and 10 rebounds.
Irish coach Niele Ivey asked her players for 10% more when Mabrey was hurt, then upped that another 10 percent after Miles went out. Her players, she said, complied and didn't give up on a special season.
“Everyone stepped up and it's kind of become our identity - our resilience and toughness,” Ivey said.
No one needs an introduction at the Greenville 1 Regional.
Both semifinals are rematches of games from earlier this season. Maryland and Notre Dame played on Dec. 1, the Terrapins pulling out a 74-72 victory in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
UCLA threw a scare into South Carolina, holding at 10-point lead before the Gamecocks rallied to win 73-64 on Nov. 29.
Having scouted your Sweet 16 opponent before is helpful, Ivey said, as long as you don't rely on the past too heavily because teams evolve throughout the season.
“March catches everyone by surprise,” Maryland guard Shyanne Sellers said. “Now, you're trying to figure out how to scout people again. I think it's good we've played them. We've got a good feel for who they are and what they can do as players.”
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25
Updated March 24, 2023