USC using shot blocking ability to maintain undefeated record

South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston (4) and Kierra Fletcher (41) block Liberty’s Mya Berkman (20) during the first half of action in the Colonial Life Arena on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022.

South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston (4) and Kierra Fletcher (41) block Liberty’s Mya Berkman (20) during the first half of action in the Colonial Life Arena on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022.

Opposing teams enter the painted area at their own risk against No. 1 South Carolina. Time after time, layup attempts are either sent out of bounds or stuffed before the opposing player gets a shot off.

The Gamecocks send back a nation-leading 9.7 shots per game, almost three blocks clear of the next team on the list. USC has rejected 23.5% of 2-point attempts this season, according to Her Hoops Stats.

Four of USC’s players rank in the top 10 among SEC players for blocked shots per game, and two are in the top five.

South Carolina’s had eight games this season in which it denied at least 10 shots. Eight players have recorded three blocks in a game at least once.

The Gamecocks have mastered the art of the swat, and that level of defensive prowess comes as a product of skill and instinct.

“I don’t know how much you can teach the ability to block a shot,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “Yes, you can go through the mechanics and all of that, but there’s timing to it. There’s defensive help. You can teach those things, but to do what we’re doing, we’ve got a lengthy frontcourt.”

Last season, the Gamecocks sent back 7.4 shots an outing. The next-closest team in the nation to USC in blocks for 2022-23 is Stanford at 6.9 per game.

USC’s lengthy frontcourt stymies opposing offenses. South Carolina rosters five players with a 6-foot-5 or longer wingspan, and seven players who stand 6-foot-2 or taller. That doesn’t include the 6-foot-1 Brea Beal, who is a key piece in the shot-blocking efforts at 1.3 per game.

Beal gets many of hers by following ball handlers on the perimeter and blocking their shots as they drive to the rim.

“With film, especially for the guards, we watch how the guards that we’re guarding play,” Beal said. “How do they get off shots? How do they get off their layups?”

The defense as a whole is stifling, allowing 46 points per game — also the best in the country. It’s an improvement from the already impressive mark of 50.7 average during last season’s championship run.

The stops allow South Carolina to get out in transition and create its own offense. USC’s experiencing an 11-point scoring increase from last season, and the defensive performances play a role in that.

Aliyah Boston leads the team in blocks with two per game, and she’s blocked at least three shots in six games.

“It’s all about timing,” Boston said. “I look at their body movement a lot, especially when it comes to guards. They really give it away each time they’re really going up. Then, I just go for it.”

These plays help give momentum to South Carolina, inspiring it to make plays on the other side of the ball. Freshman forward Ashlyn Watkins described blocks as a “pump-up” and said the rejections provide an energy boost.

“I do think it’s a little contagious,” Staley said. “When one of them gets a block, I think they try to outdo each other. I really think they like blocking shots.”

Skillful shot blocking is proving to be a useful tool for USC.

As it moves into the final month of the regular season — with games against No. 5 UConn, No. 3 LSU and Tennessee — it’ll continue to rely on defense to help limit scoring opportunities and start its own transition offense.

“That’s a luxury,” Staley said. “We don’t plan that. We don’t, they just happen and they’re icing on the cake.”

Jeremiah Holloway covers South Carolina women’s basketball and football for The State. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, he is from Greensboro, N.C. and an avid basketball fan. Holloway joined The State in August 2022.

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