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SEC/Big 12 Challenge Preview: To survive an attack from the Lady Bears, the Gamecocks must come up big defensively

The No. 4 Baylor Lady Bears charge into No. 18 South Carolina in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Baylor enters this one cruising but untested, while the Gamecocks are in a bid to keep their season alive. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2!

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NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oklahoma City Regional-Baylor vs Mississippi State
Lauren Cox, a 6-foot-4 junior forward out of Flower Mound, Texas, is averaging 10.5 points, 7 rebounds and 3.8 assists for the Baylor Lady Bears this season.
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 18 South Carolina Gamecocks snapped a two-game losing streak against the Dayton Flyers on Wednesday. Although the Flyers are an unranked team who fell to 2-4 on the season following the loss, Dayton played competitive basketball that challenged the Gamecocks — leading after the first quarter, moving into halftime at 30-all and trailing by just two points at the end of the third quarter before South Carolina ran away with the 65-55 victory.

Sure, nothing came easy for the Gamecocks against Dayton — as has been the case with their entire season — but the team showed signs of the more disciplined basketball that head coach Dawn Staley had promised, with one of the biggest corrections being vastly improved production from Tyasha Harris, who has struggled against ranked teams. Against then-No. 9 Maryland on Nov. 18 and No. 9 Oregon State on Nov. 23, Harris scored just four points in each game. Against Dayton on Nov. 28, however, Harris scored 24 points and grabbed 2 steals. Facing Baylor tonight, the Gamecocks will need Harris to find a way into the kind of scoring production she has put up against unranked teams this season.

Turnovers have tanked South Carolina this season, with the Gamecocks averaging 13.9 per game. That may not seem like a ton of turnovers upon first glance, but South Carolina had a season-high 27 against in-state rival Clemson on Nov. 15, and 22 against East Tennessee State on Nov. 22. The Gamecocks won both games — the latter by 45 points — but positive outcomes do not erase these shortcomings because they become more problematic against stiffer competition. Against the Flyers on Wednesday, the Gamecocks limited turnovers to just 8, and the team had a season-low 6 turnovers against Oregon State on Nov. 23.

Alexis Jennings is averaging 8.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Gamecocks, and she has the team’s highest field goal percentage at 48.8 percent. Against Baylor, Jennings will need to push those numbers into double-double territory. But her services are especially needed in scoring, as the Gamecocks have not had three players score in double figures with any consistency this season.

Conditions are right for a ‘Bear’ attack

The Baylor Lady Bears will hit the hardwood in South Carolina ranked No. 4 in the AP standings. However, all No. 4 rankings are not created equal, as evidenced by the NCAA RPI putting Baylor all the way down at No. 28. The reason for the discrepancy? Although sitting on a perfect 6-0 record, Baylor has faced just one ranked team this season — then-No. 23 Arizona State, in a 65-59 win on Nov. 11. But this says nothing more about the Lady Bears other than they have not yet been tested this season.

But it is the way in which this team has beaten opponents — with three to seven players scoring in double figures in any given game, from the starting lineup to the bench, in myriad Kim Mulkey-created combinations — that will give South Carolina its most daunting challenge of the season. In the 45-point drubbing of the Southern Lady Jaguars on Nov. 15, a whopping seven Lady Bears scored in double figures, with four of those players coming from the bench.

From the starting lineup:

  • Lauren Cox, junior forward — 10 points
  • NaLayssa Smith, freshman forward — 11 points
  • Chloe Jackson, fifth-year guard — 11 points

From the bench:

  • Caitlin Bickle, freshman forward — 11 points
  • Queen Egbo, freshman center — 11 points
  • Moon Ursin, sophomore guard — 11 points
  • Honesty Scott-Grayson, freshman guard — 15 points

Scott-Grayson’s 15 points were a game-high in scoring, and she was one of the four freshman put up double digits in the blowout of Southern.

Any way you cut it, that’s a lot of balanced firepower for any team, in any league, especially for first-year players. With the Gamecocks struggling on offense and lacking the bench depth of the Lady Bears, South Carolina will need to come with their defensive claws sharpened to keep the game close against Baylor’s prolific scorers and give themselves a chance to win.

No. 4 Baylor Lady Bears at No. 18 South Carolina Gamecocks

When: Sunday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, SC | TICKETS

How to tune in: ESPN2 | IMG Sports Radio | (audio only)