‘They’re a different team now’: Confident Gamecocks present challenges for top-seeded Lady Bears

South Carolina guard Doniyah Cliney dribbles down court against Florida State during the second half of a second-round women's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, March 24, 2019. Associated Press

By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer

GREENSBORO, N.C. – After sweeping the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Lady Bears and the South Carolina Gamecocks are in Greensboro, N.C., both with high hopes of advancing to the Elite Eight.

The No. 4 seed Gamecocks are coming off wins against Belmont (74-52) and Florida State (72-64) as the No. 1 seed Lady Bears are coming off two huge lopsided wins against Abilene Christian (95-38) and Cal (102-63).

The Gamecocks are making their sixth straight Sweet 16 appearance, and a win against the Lady Bears can bring them to their third straight Elite Eight. Baylor comes into the tournament looking to advance further than the Sweet 16, where they were eliminated by Oregon State last year. Senior center Kalani Brown said this year is different because the team is focused and prepared to go all the way.

“At this time last year, we didn’t have a lot of depth. Additionally we were pretty much exhausted,” Brown said. “Everyone’s focused. Everyone’s looking for one goal and you can’t say that the whole team, that the entire team, that every single person, was as focused as we are now.”

The Sweet 16 matchup marks the second meeting between the two teams. Playing for the first time in December, the Lady Bears dominated in first half shooting which paved the way to a 94-69 victory. Regardless of the previous matchup, head coach Kim Mulkey said that the two teams have changed and adapted.

“They’re a different team now. We’re a different team now,” Mulkey said. “Some players who did not play much in that game are now huge factors for them. You know about their guard play, how quick they are and how many players they play. They like to push it and get up and down the floor. The difference probably between that game and what you’ll see tomorrow is they started out in a zone defense, assuming because of our bigs, they stayed in it. … I don’t anticipate that happening because how effective our guards were against them in December.”

After playing Baylor in December, South Carolina went on a 13 of 14 game win-streak which head coach Dawn Staley credited to getting healthier.

“[Baylor] force[s] you to stop them from doing the things they want to do,” Staley said. “I think we’re better. I think we’re a better basketball team at this stage of the game. I don’t think we will have the same game plan. The game plan back in December was, we started back in the zone because we didn’t feel like we could match up with them with that current health of our basketball team.”

Both teams are going into the matchup with depth on the bench and in their prime.

Baylor ranks in the top 10 nationally in 16 categories, including defensive rebounds per game (33), field goal percentage defense (.313) and fourth in field goal percentage (.501). Program wise, the Lady Bears set records for rebounds, 3-point field goal percentage and offensive rebounds.

The Gamecocks, on the other hand, have advanced to the Elite Eight three of the last four seasons, including winning the National Championship in 2017. This season alone, every player has blocked a shot – making the Gamecocks second in the nation in blocked shots per game (6.4), behind Baylor.

Out of a 13 woman active roster, 12 have notched double-digit scoring numbers this season, led by senior forward Alexis Jennings and junior guard Tyasha Harris with 21 games.

A win would pave the way to the Elite Eight on Monday to face the winner of the North Carolina and Iowa matchup. Jennings is confident that the team has developed chemistry that will put them on top.

“We’re more confident. Everybody is coming into their roles. They understand their roles now. We have an emphasis on competing now,” Jennings said. “That’s been the main focus for most of the tournament. We’re just coming into our own. Our chemistry is flowing. Everybody understands, when everyone is on the same page, we’re unstoppable.”