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Preview: No. 1 South Carolina, No. 9 LSU meet in season-best SEC showdown

No. 1 South Carolina faces their toughest test since opening day, traveling to Baton Rouge to face No. 9 LSU. Can the nation’s only undefeated team remain unscathed after a meeting with the defending national champions?

Kentucky v South Carolina
Raven Johnson, Te-Hina Paopao, Kamilla Cardoso and No. 1 South Carolina stroll into Baton Rouge as the nation’s only undefeated team.
Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Thursday evening presents the possible game of the season, when No. 1 and undefeated South Carolina (17-0, 5-0) heads to Baton Rouge to meet No. 9 and defending national champion LSU (18-2, 5-1) at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Entering the 2023-24 season, it was expected that the Lady Tigers, boosted by the highest-rated recruiting and transfer classes, would romp through the regular season, the closest thing to a collegiate super team. Instead, the Gamecocks are the nation’s premier team, looking not only like the best team in the country but also the best of the Dawn Staley era.

Staley seemingly has infused her squad with a special elixir that has encouraged the relatively-inexperienced Gamecocks to quickly cohere into a disciplined, dominant team without weakness. In contrast, despite any mystical powers possibly possessed by Kim Mulkey’s bejeweled blazers, the Lady Tigers have yet to jell into a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts, with stretches of excellence too often interrupted by uneven play.

That said, LSU, when at their best, profiles as the type of team that could take down South Carolina, as the Lady Tigers have the athleticism and skill required to compete with the Gamecocks for four quarters.

Can o-boards, free throws lead LSU to the upset?

In particular, LSU will not get overpowered on the boards by South Carolina. Yes, the Gamecocks are the best defensive rebounding (35.0 per game) and overall rebounding (48.6 per game) team in the nation, but, on the offensive glass, the Lady Tigers outpace their counterparts (17.3 per game). Much of that is due to reigning SEC Player of the Week Angel Reese. The superstar junior forward is first in the SEC and third in the nation in total offensive rebounds (92); when on the court, she grabs more than 21 percent of available offensive boards.

Her greediness on the glass not only earns second-chance scoring opportunities, but also easy points from the free throw line. The Lady Tigers, led by Reese, take a nation-leading 30.1 free throws per game, making 22.2 per contest. Reese is first in the nation is free throws made (115) and attempted (157).

If Reese’s relentlessness on the offensive glass results in foul trouble for South Carolina’s core frontcourt rotation of senior center Kamilla Cardoso, sophomore forward Chloe Kitts and sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins, LSU will gain a significant edge on Thursday night. Add in some smooth, tough shotmaking from junior wing Aneesah Morrow and freshman wing Mikaylah Williams, along with some clutch, hustle plays from sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson and grad guard Hailey Van Lith, and the Lady Tigers could have the Gamecocks reeling.

Will South Carolina remain undefeated due to their new-found sharp shooting?

However, three is greater than two. Even if LSU earns more trips to the free throw line, South Carolina’s superior shooting, especially from behind the arc, could tilt things back in the Gamecocks’ favor. The Gamecocks are the nation’s most efficient shooting team, making better than 52 percent of their field goals and more than 44 percent of their 3-point attempts.

While South Carolina still does not take a lot of 3s, the likes of senior guard Te-Hina Paopao, junior guard Bree Hall, sophomore guard Raven Johnson and freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley should fire away from behind the arc. As LSU takes even fewer 3s per game and makes only 33.3 percent of them, the Gamecocks could bury the Lady Tigers under a torrent of triples.

If both teams are able to neutralize the other’s transition attack, the ability to score in the half court will be consequential. Not only is it advantageous that South Carolina’s perimeter players are proficient from 3, but that they have to be guarded from behind the arc requires a LSU defense that has not been consistently connected to cover more space, which can result in break downs that lead to easy scores for South Carolina.

However, more than any X-and-Os or advanced stats rationale, the superior game plan discipline that South Carolina has shown throughout the season thus far inspires confidence in their ability get the road win in Baton Rouge and remain undefeated.

Game information

No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks (17-0, 5-0) vs. No. 9 LSU Lady Tigers (18-2, 5-1)

When: Thursday, Jan. 25 at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, LA

How to watch: ESPN