March 26, 2023 

In UCLA romp, South Carolina and Brea Beal assert defense and fix mistakes

SEC takes “defense wins championships” to heart

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Redemption is a concept difficult to chase and, for many teams, elusive. However, in this last month, the Gamecocks have achieved it twice. On the same floor.

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Throughout this season, a concise list has threatened the Gamecocks for significant minutes, and in March, the unlikely struck twice when South Carolina was served a rematch against two on that list, Mississippi and UCLA, in a Gamecock-filled Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

Despite the signs from previous games, South Carolina stomped both teams in their second go-around by dominating the areas where they previously made mistakes, holding their opponents to season-lows.

“Defensively and rebounding-wise they may be the best if not one of the best,” UCLA Head Coach Cori Close said to reporters about where South Carolina stacks up in her 30-year coaching career.

But holding a team to a season-low is a concept far from foreign for the Gamecocks. Over this season, they’ve dealt season-lows to 13 of their 28 overall opponents. The key to this season-low madness is South Carolina’s demoralizing defense.

“I feel like [defense] is a very underrated part of our game,” senior Laeticia Amihere told The Next. “We obviously have great bigs that can score but we also have great bigs that can shot block.”

And on Saturday, not one player scored more than 10 points and the overall team shot less than 40% from the field, 25% from three, and under 60% from the stripe. This offensive slide was partially imposed by UCLA’s defense, but without the Gamecock defense to save them, they wouldn’t have made it out alive.

In the 59-43 win, the Gamecocks kept UCLA to just 15 points in the first half, an impressive feat for even Dawn Staley’s squad. Many players categorized it as their best defense of the season.

“I would call this university Defense University,” freshman Raven Johnson exclaimed.

Brea Beal is the key

The Gamecocks’ players chalked up their tight defense to communication on ball screens, pride, their transition game, physicality, and more. But more than just the Xs and Os, teammates said Brea Beal has been laying the defensive mindset over the last four years.

“Defense is something that we always took pride in, but I will give the credit to Brea Beal. I think she’s the one that taught us how to play defense,” senior Zia Cooke told reporters. “Especially me. Just watching her and the things that she does definitely wore off on me.”

On Saturday Beal brought her signature defensive tenacity by applying constant pressure to the Bruin offense, particularly on the perimeter. In her 24 minutes on the court, she registered seven rebounds and four assists. According to Her Hoops Stats, on the season Beal sits in the top 25 of defensive win shares across the country, which is particularly impressive considering Staley usually gives her the most challenging defensive assignment on a team.

“I feel like naturally I just began to embrace [my defensive abilities]. It definitely came with some hardship, but throughout time I just walked into it,” Beal explained to reporters. “It’s not necessarily something I was like, ‘I’m this defender, I’m the best defender.’ It came naturally, just as well as offensively, it’s just something you’ve got to be patient and just accept as time goes.”

Beal’s teammates cite her as their calming anchor on the court and explain that since she came in freshman year, her mindset has become increasingly infectious.

“I think Brea Beal is just super locked in, and I think everything really kind of starts with her and her intensity,” Olivia Thompson told The Next. “Her defensive ability is definitely a trickle effect on everyone else. So she’s just an amazing leader.”

Staley says Beal’s confidence is at an all-time high and predicts her hard work and extra effort will likely make her an attractive WNBA pick. She announced after the Round of 32 she would not be returning to Columbia.

A larger SEC trend

Interestingly enough, South Carolina’s offensive slump, saved by their defensive effort, emulates the fortunes of many SEC teams over the NCAA Tournament. Of the four SEC teams that made the Sweet 16 — LSU, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee — most played tremendous defense during their wins.

Gamecock players say that the SEC’s physicality and attention to defense on a nightly basis has prepared them for games like UCLA and sets the norm in the tournament.

“Just being prepared for the physicality because everybody’s going to come in here and try to bully and fight and do all that,” Aliyah Boston told the media. “So the SEC I think just prepares us naturally because it’s such a physical league that we know that it’s coming and we just have to prepare for it.”

But as much as a good defense is something to celebrate, in this instance, it illustrates a trend of a conference-wide lapse in offense.

“I mean, obviously, we haven’t really shot the ball since we’ve been in the playoffs. … We’re giving a lot of credit to our defense,” LSU’s Alexis Morris said after their Friday win. “Our defense has carried us along the way. I can’t wait till we wake up and play a complete game.”

As the age-old adage says: “defense wins championships,” but for LSU and South Carolina, the only remaining SEC tournament representatives, will just defense be enough?

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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