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South Carolina update: The No. 1 Gamecocks have an extra gear

Yes, it’s been just three games. But it’s hard not to get excited about what we’ve seen from the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks.

Maryland v South Carolina
Raven Johnson and the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks looked like top-tier championship contenders through three games.
Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

We’re certainly not calling it a “rebuild.”

Through three games, the No. 1 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks are a relentless rampage of excellence and excitement. After opening the season with a domination of then-No. 10 Notre Dame in Paris, South Carolina ran then-No. 14 Maryland out of Colonial Life Arena on Sunday. Thursday night, it was an evisceration of in-state rival Clemson, 109-40.

Here are three observations from South Carolina’s sensational start to the 2023-24 season:

Look out when the Gamecocks press the gas

South Carolina’s two games against ranked opponents unfolded similarly.

After a tightly-contested first quarter, the Gamecocks would gain some separation in the second period. Then, all of the sudden, it was off to the races, with the Gamecocks’ hustling into halftime with a comfortable lead before pouring in on in the second half. Both games became absolute routs as South Carolina crossed the century mark in victories over Notre Dame and Maryland.

When South Carolina establishes that second-quarter advantage, it seems that head coach Dawn Staley turns up the dial on the defense. That smothering defense then turns into high-flying, highlight-worthy transition offense. And once that feedback loop gets rolling, it appears as if there’s no stopping the Gamecocks.

Raven and the Gamecocks are raining 3s

Last season, daring South Carolina to take and make 3s was a viable defensive strategy. In the Final Four, Iowa employed this tactic, epitomized by Caitlin Clark infamously ignoring a wide-open Raven Johnson. Through the early season, it appears that strategy has expired; the Gamecocks—including Johnson—have begun to weaponize the 3-pointer. After taking 14.2 3s per game last season and making just 31 percent of them, South Carolina has upped their behind-the-arc attempts to 22 per game, while their conversion rate is 40.9 percent.

Even though South Carolina’s percentage from deep likely will regress, this early success should alter the way opponents guard the Gamecocks, requiring defenders to close out on shooters and cover more space. A scrambling, rotating defense then opens up opportunities for Gamecock guards to drive to the hoop or hit Kamilla Cardoso for a post bucket. One player who can thrive in such scenarios is Johnson.

In the preseason, the sophomore guard indicated she used the Final Four moment as “fuel to the fire,” saying, “Maybe I needed that to happen to me. I definitely will take that as fuel to the fire. It just tells me I need to get in the gym, put up some shots, go get my shot better.” The work Johnson put in is paying off early in the season. She has nearly doubled her 3-point attempts, taking three a game. Before going empty from behind the arc against Clemson, Johnson was hitting 50 percent of her triples. (Against the Tigers, it was Johnson’s passing that popped, with 17 assists!)

Te-Hina Paopao and MiLaysia Fulwiley inflicted most of the deep damage on Clemson, with the senior and freshman guards each draining four 3-pointers. As Clemson head coach Amanda Butler said of South Carolina after the game, “They’re different because they can shoot.”

The Kitts-Watkins killer combo

During the broadcast of Sunday’s game against Maryland, ESPN’s Carolyn Peck repeatedly emphasized the importance of the power forward position to Dawn Staley’s system.

Through three games, the Chloe Kitts-Ashlyn Watkins pairing looks like a winning combination. As a starter, the redshirt freshman Kitts brings incessant energy. While possessing some perimeter skills that allow her to play with composure on the ball, Kitts’ value shines when she is scraping under the basket for rebounds and putbacks, with her long limbs and bleach-blonde ponytail flying due her fire. Through three games, Kitts is averaging 10.7 points per game on 60 percent shooting, along with 4.3 rebounds and a block.

When she heads to the bench, the opponent receives no reprieve, as in comes one of the nation’s most athletic players in the sophomore Watkins. She’s a shot-blocking machine; with only four blocks against Clemson, Watkins’ blocks per game dropped from a nation-leading 4.5 to just 4.3. And it’s worth emphasizing that these blocks aren’t coming against overwhelmed mid-major opponents, but against fellow Power 5 teams full of highly-touted players. Watkins matches Kitts with 10.7 points per game. She’s shooting 58.3 percent from the field, while also adding 8.7 rebounds a contest.

Combined, the duo is giving Staley more than 20 points, around 13 rebounds and at least five blocks per game. That’s All-American-quality production from the power forward position.

What’s next for South Carolina?

On Sunday evening, the Gamecocks host the South Dakota State Jackrabbits (1-1), followed by another home game against Mississippi Valley State Devilettes (0-2). South Carolina’s next true test comes after the Thanksgiving holiday, when they head to Chapel Hill for a battle of the Carolinas against the No. 17 UNC Tarheels.