Indiana faces its toughest challenge yet against South Carolina in tonight’s Sweet Sixteen

  • 03/29/2024 7:22 am in

Indiana’s reward for reaching its third Sweet Sixteen in four seasons is a date with the nation’s top program: South Carolina.

Indiana will face the No. 1 overall seed Gamecocks Friday night at MVP Arena in Albany, New York. The game is set for Friday at 5 p.m. ET, and the winner will advance to take on Oregon State or Notre Dame. South Carolina has been the best team all season and enters Friday’s contest on a 34-game win streak, having only lost one game in the past two seasons.

According to head coach Dawn Staley, South Carolina is playing some of its most connected basketball of the season. The Gamecocks have won their first two tournament games by a combined score of 99 points against Presbyterian and North Carolina.

“We haven’t played like that in a super long time,” Staley said after the win against North Carolina. “We actually were talking about that in the coaches’ locker room, like, we haven’t played well all together. Every single one of our players made an impact coming into the game.

“We needed a performance like this. Hopefully playing this good of basketball can be contagious throughout the rest of the way. I thought we did a great job of just being aggressive on both sides of the basketball, just locking in to make sure that this wouldn’t be our last game.”

There’s been plenty of talk surrounding South Carolina all season, but there are a few key reasons why this group has been so good and consistent.

One of the most impressive things about this year’s group is the team’s depth. Last year, all five players in the starting lineup were drafted to the WNBA, leaving South Carolina to rebuild their core players. That was no problem for Staley and her staff.

Seven players are averaging eight or more points per game for the Gamecocks. Led by their top three scorers, Kamilla Cardoso, MiLaysia Fulwiley, and Te-Hina Paopao, the Gamecocks have one of the strongest teams in the country from top to bottom.

“We know it’s going to be a tall task because they’re so terrific and so not just well-balanced but they really have 10 starters, the way I look at it when we’re preparing for them,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said Thursday.

South Carolina’s bench is one of the team’s strengths, adding another level to its offensive production. The Gamecocks are currently second in the country with 34.1 bench points per game. The reserves have been so dominant that the bench alone has outscored its opponents’ starters 11 times.

The most significant improvement on the floor for this group has been shooting. The Gamecocks have been known for their size and athleticism for the past couple of seasons, and although they still possess those same strengths, this year’s group has taken significant steps forward in that area.

They enter as a top-five team in the country in terms of shooting percentage from the floor and the perimeter. The Gamecocks come into Friday, shooting 49.8 percent from the field and 39.8 percent on 3s. South Carolina has been a much more confident shooting team this year, which has made them a more well-rounded team.

A lot of that shooting success comes from Bree Hall and Paopao, South Carolina’s two best 3-point shooters. Paopao was added from the transfer portal, making her way to Columbia from the University of Oregon. She has been one of the most potent additions to this team and is the team’s most active shooter from the outside. She has connected on a team-high 79 threes this season and is shooting 47.6 from distance.

Hall has been right there next to Paopao with the second-most 3-pointers made on the roster. Hall is a testament to Staley’s constant development of her players. Although Hall didn’t play in the tournament’s opening game, she found 16 minutes of playing time against North Carolina.

This year’s South Carolina squad has been averaging 6.6 three-pointers per game, an increase of 2.2 from last season. Indiana has to guard the outside well, as the Gamecocks can easily match up against the Hoosiers’ 3-point offense.

When you look at the other side of the ball, South Carolina is equally as good on the defensive end as they are on offense and might even be a bit better. Defense has been the backbone of this team during the past couple of seasons, and once again, the Gamecocks offer one of the best defenses in the country. Right now, they sit just outside the top ten in points allowed per game, allowing 55.4 points per contest, 11th best in the country.

South Carolina is tall and physical around the basket. They currently lead the country in blocks per game with 7.9 and are third in rebounds per game (46.5), the most of any power-five team. In the tournament’s first round, South Carolina tied a school record for blocks in a game with 17 against Presbyterian.

A unique aspect of the Gamecocks’ defense is how well they switch on defenders. Staley is known for pressing up against her opponents, making it difficult to find any separation. Expect plenty of that on Friday, especially with the Mackenzie Holmes and Cardoso matchup down in the post.

South Carolina is a team that commits very few mistakes and has few flaws in its game. There is a reason why they are undefeated and have been the best program in women’s college basketball for several seasons.

It will be a tough matchup against South Carolina — Indiana is a 15.5-point underdog — but the Hoosiers are also here for a reason and will look to show the rest of the world what they are capable of.

“I want our kids to enjoy this, as well,” Moren said. “I want them to play with not just enjoyment but joy, and they realize it. These kids aren’t — they know how good South Carolina is. We feel like we’ve been tested throughout the season, and our charge is just to come in here and put our best foot forward and play as well as we can.”

(Photo credit: South Carolina Athletics)

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