COLUMBIA, S.C. — Top-ranked South Carolina puts one of the most experienced and accomplished starting lineups on the floor each game. The action really picks up, though, when the Gamecocks go to the bench.
South Carolina has used its tall, talented reserves to roll to a 19-0 record and looks to win its 20th consecutive game when it faces Alabama (12-10, 1-6 Southeastern Conference) on Thursday night.
The backups include second-leading scorer in 6-foot-5 A’ja Wilson and top rebounder in 6-4 Alaina Coates, who was last year’s SEC freshman of the year.
Wilson, the nation’s top college prospect last season, could have started at most other programs in the country. But she’s content to come off the bench to help the team succeed.
“Of course everyone wants to start, but you can only start five,” said Wilson, second on the team in scoring at 13.6 points a game and rebounding at 7.2 boards a game. “You have to learn that when your name is called, you got to play your best while you’re out there.”
South Carolina’s reserves have certainly done that. They were instrumental in swatting down No. 12 Texas A&M 79-61 this past Monday night, outscoring the Aggies’ bench 41-8 and outrebounding them 28-14.
Wilson and Coates were a big part of that disparity. Wilson had 17 points and nine rebounds while Coates had 12 points and 11 rebounds for her seventh double-double this season.
South Carolina’s bench also features a McDonald’s All-American point guard in Bianca Cuevas and 3-point ace Tina Roy.
Cuevas is a lightning-quick player with a fierce-minded approach to defense — she’s fourth on the Gamecocks with 24 steals — in the image of South Carolina coach Dawn Staley.
“I don’t think anybody has what we have coming off the bench,” Staley said. “It’s not only scoring. They rebound. They block shots. They pressure the basketball. We are almost a different basketball team when we go deep into our bench. It’s a beautiful thing to see how this is unfolding.”
And many times, the subs outdo the starters — South Carolina’s bench has outscored its starting five 10 times this season.
Staley tried several different combinations of starters early in the season before settling on a group of five seniors and juniors. That unit includes last year’s SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell, all-SEC first teamer Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam, who was second last season in SEC blocks and made the league’s all-defensive team.
Mitchell is a quietly, consistent performer who turned the tide in the Texas A&M, driving to the basket and getting fouled on consecutive possessions. Her four free throws that resulted began a 27-8 run the Gamecocks used to pull away from the Aggies.
“I think they set the tone for the rest of the game. They set the example as to how we need to play,” Staley said of her starters. “Then the people that are coming in off the bench, they see the game a little bit clearer. It’s clear to them that our players that start the game have been here, they understand it and they know and they do their jobs at the beginning of the game.”
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair complimented Staley on the success she’s had getting highly skilled players like Wilson and Coates to take on secondary roles, even if they wind up putting in more minutes than the Gamecock starters.
Staley sees it as all her players buying into a vision to achieve the biggest dreams they can in college and win a national championship. Wilson, who passed on Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee to join the Gamecocks, made a mature decision to accept her role, Staley said.
“Once she had the performances she had after she didn’t start, she felt good about it,” the coach said. “I just told her that we are better served if she comes off the bench.”
This article was written by Pete Iacobelli from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.