South Carolina remains undefeated victor, but LSU proves something: ‘We’re not going away’

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Over the past five years, the SEC has essentially been the conference of SC.

South Carolina won six of the eight titles contested over the previous four seasons, falling one game back of the 2021 regular-season crown and losing in the final seconds of the 2022 SEC tournament championship game. The Gamecocks have lost only four conference games (counting the conference tournament) since the start of the 2019-20 season, a truly ridiculous stretch of dominance in one of the country’s strongest leagues.

Even the teams that recently have challenged South Carolina won in fluky fashion. Missouri beat the Gamecocks in overtime to deliver the Gamecocks their lone regular-season loss of 2021-22, but the Tigers didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky was on its way to a similar fate before beating South Carolina in that SEC tournament, and then the Wildcats lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as an automatic qualifier anyway.

The South has belonged to South Carolina, and Thursday’s come-from-behind victory over LSU was a reminder of that fact. But it was also a sign that the Tigers might be further along than they were a year ago, during a season that ended with LSU celebrating its first national championship. If ever a real rival were emerging to threaten the Gamecocks’ supremacy in the SEC, it’s these Tigers.

Despite suffering a 76-70 defeat on its home court Thursday night to No. 1 South Carolina, No. 9 LSU showcased several strengths that are not unique to this specific matchup against South Carolina. Chief among them was the play of Angel Reese. Reese spent most of the 2022-23 season as a power forward but has handled the move to center smoothly. She can still power through her defenders on the way to the basket, and her speed becomes more of an advantage at the five. Kamilla Cardoso, South Carolina’s 6-foot-7 center, posed some challenges waiting at the rim, but Reese was hampered as much by her own guards’ entry passes as she was the Gamecocks’ defense. It’s worth noting this was the 13th game Reese has played with new Tigers point guard Hailey Van Lith, and the adjustment process continues.

GO DEEPER

No. 1 South Carolina outlasts LSU to remain undefeated

Reese also has remained an equally impactful defender at center. Her fronting of Cardoso kept the ball out of the center’s hand for most of the first half, and Cardoso found a rhythm only when Reese later got into foul trouble. Reese is a great shot blocker; she also has great hands to take away the ball when opposing guards deliver a pass out of position, and she has the handle to go coast-to-coast in transition. The Tigers comfortably won her minutes and probably would have finished the game off had Reese been able to stay on the court.

Reese’s interior presence paired well with outstanding perimeter defense from Flau’jae Johnson, the other remaining starter from last season’s roster. Johnson is long and strong and has enough speed to contain smaller guards, like South Carolina’s Te-Hina Paopao. When Johnson is locked in, she can deny just about anyone the ball, and like Reese, she can quickly turn defense into offense.

LSU also has outstanding scorers in isolation. Mikaylah Williams couldn’t hit from distance against the Gamecocks but made half of her 2-pointers on a tough shot diet. Aneesah Morrow made seven of her 11 shots, including multiple 3-pointers for the first time in a Tigers uniform, and her play forced Dawn Staley to take Chloe Kitts out of the game because Kitts couldn’t defend Morrow.

Lest we forget, LSU also has the confidence of being the defending champion. Sure, the Tigers lost to South Carolina in spectacular fashion during their one regular-season meeting in 2022-23, but they won the biggest games on the biggest stage. While the Gamecocks struggled to contain Iowa in their Final Four matchup last season, LSU wiped the floor with the Hawkeyes two days later. Even if South Carolina came into this season as the reigning conference champion, the Tigers entered it wearing the bigger crown.

They have the learned experience of putting a team together on the fly and peaking in March, which is what they’ll have to do again as they incorporate Van Lith, Morrow and Williams. They have the experience of being counted out and proving those doubters wrong. And it seems like the program will have some staying power under a four-time title winning coach in Kim Mulkey. Furthermore, though they haven’t recruited as well as the Gamecocks (no McDonald’s All-Americans are coming to LSU in 2024), the Tigers have been the queens of the transfer portal. Alexis Morris, LaDazhia Williams and Jasmine Carson were starters on the national title team while Van Lith and Morrow were two of the splashiest additions during the past offseason.

A gap obviously remains between South Carolina and the rest of the SEC (even accounting for Texas, which will join the conference next season), not to mention most of the rest of the country. The Gamecocks trailed by 11 points in a boisterous road environment and were down by five in the fourth quarter. They found a way to tune out the noise, make adjustments and win. They did so in the highest-profile matchup of the season thus far, with “College GameDay” in town and tickets going for more than $100 on the secondary market just to get into the building, and courtside seats reportedly fetching at least $1,000. Fans numbered 13,205 in attendance — mostly to cheer on LSU — and South Carolina still emerged the victor

LSU isn’t a rival yet; it’s only a challenger. But the Tigers believe themselves to be more, and with the way most SEC contests involving South Carolina have played out in the past five years, that conviction is at least something. Even if the result didn’t go their way, they met the moment against likely the toughest opponent they’ll face this season.

As Mulkey said after the game: “Losing to South Carolina the way we did sent a message that we’re not going away.” LSU didn’t go away even after a much more harrowing defeat to the Gamecocks a year ago. The Tigers are still coming along, and the SEC will be better off for it.

(Photo of Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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