If anyone questioned the South Carolina Gamecock’s No. 1 ranking prior to the start of the 2021-22 women’s college basketball season, they should no longer.
The Gamecocks already have secured three convincing wins over Top 10 teams, opening the season with a victory over then-No. 5 (now No. 2) NC State, then-No. 9 (now unranked) Oregon and then-No. 2 (now No. 3) UConn.
On Sunday afternoon, South Carolina has the opportunity to notch a fourth Top 10 win when it hosts the No. 8 Maryland Terrapins at 3 p.m. ET (ESPN).
While their early-season performances have solidified the Gamecocks’ status as a championship contender, the same cannot be said for the Terrapins. Although Maryland’s back-to-back losses to NC State and Stanford — when the team was without Katie Benzan (illness), Faith Masonius (illness) and Diamond Miller (injury) — are understandable, that the Terps were not more competitive was still disappointing.
Additionally, after barely escaping the Miami Hurricanes last weekend, the Terrapins trailed the Purdue Boilermakers at the half on Wednesday night before pulling away in the second half for a rather comfortable win.
To take down the top-ranked Gamecocks, the Terps must reach a level of play that, thus far this season, has eluded them.
Unsurprisingly, junior big Aliyah Boston has been fantastic for South Carolina, averaging 19.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and a steal per game. The Gamecocks’ greatness has been further enhanced because of the growth of Zia Cooke. Although the junior guard’s numbers are a bit down, she is playing with a new level of composure — to go with her always-there confidence — that makes South Carolina even more difficult to defeat.
The unexpected versatility of junior forward Laeticia Amihere, who capably served as a Swiss army knife starting point guard — with 11 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and five blocks — in their win over Kansas State, emphasizes how scary good the Gamecocks can be.
Yet, despite South Carolina’s depth of talent, Maryland has a chance for an upset because a Terrapin could be the best player on the court on Sunday, with sophomore forward Angel Reese and junior guard Ashley Owusu representing the two candidates.
Reese is blossoming into a big-time star, averaging a double-double of 18.5 points and 10.2 rebounds. Her specialness shined through in her 26-point and 15-rebound performance against Miami. It is imperative that Reese stay out of foul trouble so she can stay on the floor, which is easier said that done when she will be expected to contend with the likes of Boston, Amihere, Victaria Saxton and Kamila Cardoso.
Owusu might have the deepest bag in women’s college basketball, regularly astounding with her dribbling and driving craft. She will need to tap into her full repertoire in order to destabilize a stingy South Carolina defense and create scoring opportunities for herself and her teammates. Employing her strength and skill to work her way to the free throw line — and work the Gamecocks into foul trouble — also can help the Terps gain an edge.
No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks (9-0) vs. No. 8 Maryland Terrapins (9-2)
When: Sunday, Dec. 12 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, SC
How to watch: ESPN
Key to the matchup: Can Maryland win the 3-point battle? Last season, elite 3-point shooting propelled the Terps’ high-octane offense. As a team, Maryland shot 40 percent from deep, netting 8.2 triples per game. In contrast, their opponents made 33.1 percent of their threes. This season, Maryland’s opponents are draining eight threes per game as they have converted almost 35 percent of their attempts from behind the arc. Maryland is shooting only 32.8 percent from three, with 5.8 makes per game. Long-distance shooting again becoming an advantage, rather a disadvantage, can help the Terps get on track overall. To knock off the Gamecocks, the Terrapins certainly will need this advantage. So far this season, South Carolina has found more success from range, making more than one more 3-pointer per game on an improved team-wide percentage compared to last season.