The margin at the top is paper thin and this time South Carolina came out on the winning side.
The No. 1 ranked Gamecocks, coming up, defeated No. 5 NC State, 66-57, at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the first day of the college basketball season.
The Gamecocks, who are big favorites to win it all, were led by guards Zia Cooke (17 points) and Destanni Henderson (14). They shot 49% with contributions across the roster and several players stepped up as needed. The bench finished with 18 points, led by Laeticia Amihere (nine points on 4-for-6 shooting, five rebounds, two steals) and Destiny Littleton (seven points, four rebounds).
South Carolina recovered from shooting problems from last season’s upset loss to NC State and continued its dominance on the boards, 35-30. Littleton came in with two huge rebounds in the second quarter, despite solid boxing by the Wolfpack everywhere else.
The closest NC state came in two separate times in the third quarter. They trailed eight in the fourth quarter and went more than five minutes with just one bucket made by Cunane who made it to six. Kayla Jones scored five consecutive points to pull out of eight, leaving NC State alive at 2:48. South Carolina pushed it back to double digits by going 4-for-4 off the line.
The win came despite a quiet first offensive outing from player of the year contender Boston, a two-time Lisa Leslie award winner for best center in the country. Boston scored eight points and had nearly as many blocks (five) with six rebounds and two assists.
She battled the post all night with Elissa Cunane, another prize contender who was also quiet. Cunane took an early seat on the bench after an error 90 seconds into the game, finishing with eight points, three rebounds and two assists.
The Wolfpack counted on 34 combined points from attacker Jakia Brown-Turner (18) and guard Raina Perez, who went 7-for-9 for 18 points. The team was a combined 41.4% and 5-for-18 of 3-point range.
South Carolina emerged from the offseason firing. They hit with buckets from Brea Beal, Henderson and Cooke on each of their first three attempts. Boston came on the board at 4:57, making it the fourth of five starters to score. And Amihere put in one at 1:11 after a clever assist by handing over Kamilla Cardoso, as the balanced attack went on to take a 25-19 lead at half time.
The Wolfpack, who trailed 10 in the second, pulled within a point twice in the third quarter, but the Gamecocks had an answer at every turn. They used an 8-0 run to go into the final quarter, 47-39, and it built from there.
A great opening night doesn’t define a season, but South Carolina playing so well against a top-five opponent should be a cause for concern for enemies. The Gamecocks with all 11 players from the Final Four team back, plus a #1 ranked recruit class joining the fray and a star transfer named ACC Freshman and Co-Defense Player of the Year in 2020-21.
They came out sharp, holding off a good Wolfpack team every time they got closer and dominated the last quarter. That’s a championship-level feat in almost every facet of the game. The turnovers need to be cleaned up and 3-point shooting (3-12) needs to be tackled, but South Carolina proved it can be as dangerous as everyone thought.
The first day of the college basketball season is very similar to the opening day of the NCAA tournament. It’s a full day of exciting action – the women’s season is tipped at 11 a.m. ET – and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know anyone on the roster.
Comparisons to the male game are irritating, but necessary. The men’s season didn’t end on the East Coast until late afternoon and it felt like a missed opportunity. Save the high-brow matchups until the evening when more of the crowd can tune in, but keep the matchups throughout the day so fans can find an outlet for their excitement. The women’s game does this very well on opening day. If only there were more games on linear TV or at least easier to stream.
Would fans normally tune in to a match between Milwaukee and Ball State? Unlikely. But when these two are in a single possession game with 24 seconds left and the season is only 2 1/2 hours old – well, you tune in. (Ball State won, 84-75.)
It was also encouraging to have the fans back in full force in the arenas. ESPN broadcaster Ryan Ruocco rather hilariously remarked during the game in NC State that the microphones probably picked up the roaring man behind them. The nation and the world are by no means over the COVID-19 pandemic, but the return to pre-pandemic normality is refreshing if done safely.
Khayla Pointer headlines Kim Mulkey’s first win over LSU
Khayla Pointer chose to stay at LSU for another year under the new COVID eligibility rule, opening her fifth season with a triple-double.
The All-SEC guard finished with 13 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds to lead LSU over visiting Nicholls State, 82-40, for head coach Kim Mulkey’s first win at the school. It was the third triple-double in the program’s history, after Katharine Graham (2010) and Cornelia Gayden, who had two in the 1994-95 season.
Pointer is one of three players to take advantage of the added eligibility, and she even chose to stay after her aunt, Nikki Fargas, resigned as head coach in April. She later joined the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces as team president.
Guard Jailin Cherry (12 points, three assists) and center Faustine Aifuwa (eight points, four rebounds) are the other two who stayed for another year. The rosters across the country are overcrowded due to the rule, and that means many teams come back full of experience. That will be something to watch all year and years to come as coaches balance veterans with raw talent and win now versus more development.
The Tigers’ first major test won’t be until December 2 against the state of Iowa in the SEC/Big 12 challenge.