South Carolina heads into Minneapolis this weekend riding an unbeaten season and a national No. 1 ranking. And the 10-0 Gamecocks don’t appear to be slowing down.
The Gophers, however, are dealing with losing their best player.
Those two programs headline this weekend’s Subway Classic at Williams Arena, but the teams will not play each other in this four-team round-robin showcase.
Minnesota takes on Liberty on Saturday and Central Michigan on Sunday. Perhaps it’s a good thing the Gophers don’t have the opportunity to take on a heavyweight: The last time they were on the floor, in North Dakota on Dec. 10, they lost their best player, senior guard Rachel Banham, for the season when she tore knee ligaments.
The Gamecocks are dealing with no such hardship. After dispensing Savannah State and Hampton by a total of 82 points, coach Dawn Staley’s bunch is riding the top national ranking for a fourth consecutive week.
“I feel really good about what our team has been able to accomplish,” said Staley, a former Hall of Fame player and three-time Olympic gold medalist. “This is not a goal we had set, but it is part of the journey.”
The Gamecocks, whom Staley has coached since 2008, have made the Sweet 16 in two of the past three years and appear on the path to at least duplicate that feat. South Carolina has a powerful frontcourt, with four players 6-4 or taller who play at least 12 minutes a game, and against Savannah State the Gamecocks scored 70 points in the paint. They also share the ball well — averaging nearly 20 assists per game — and are led in scoring by crafty guard Tiffany Mitchell (14.6 points) and heralded freshman A’ja Wilson (14.1). Five players outside of the starting five are chipping in at least four points a game. More than just an elite offense, South Carolina is ranked fourth in the nation in scoring defense.
“They’re loaded,” Gophers coach Marlene Stollings said.
The rest of the field
Gophers (9-1): After losing Banham, a preseason All-America, to a torn ACL and partially torn MCL, Minnesota will begin a new era of sorts vs. Liberty on Saturday. Banham was averaging 20 points, five assists and 4.7 rebounds. Six-foot-5 sophomore Amanda Zahui B. has six double-doubles this season. Behind Zahui B., who is tied for the third-most blocks per game in the country with 3.7, the Gophers are the seventh-best shot-blocking team. Outside the paint, though, Minnesota has struggled on both ends. The Gophers are shooting just 29.2 percent from beyond the arc. And without Banham’s 46-to-23 assist-to-turnover ratio the team has a negative mark in that area.
Central Michigan (4-3): The Chippewa have lost all three times they played top-150 RPI opponents this season, but they’ve been close to an upset. Central Michigan lost by one possession vs. No. 8 Kentucky at home and at Memphis. Star guard Crystal Bradford, who was named to the Naismith Award watch list, is putting up 18.8 points and 9.7 rebounds a game. She leads the team in points, assists, steals and rebounds.
Liberty (6-3): The Flames’ four-game winning streak ended with a one-possession loss at N.C. State on Wednesday, but they remain in first place in the Big South (2-0 in conference). Four players are averaging double digits for Liberty, led by senior guard Karly Buer (13.6 points, 3.4 rebounds a game). Burnsville native Katelyn Adams, a 6-5 forward/center, averages 3.7 points and 4.9 rebounds.