COLUMBIA — With half of its twin tower frontcourt out for the NCAA Tournament, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is trying out some different lineups.
Almost everything she tried worked Friday as the top-seeded Gamecocks (28-4) beat No. 16 seed UNC Asheville 90-40 in their biggest victory ever in the NCAA Tournament.
Staley started four guards to join Naismith national player of the year finalist A’ja Wilson. And one of those guards came up big, with Allisha Gray scoring 22 points and pulling down a career high 12 rebounds. All but one of her 11 baskets came inside the paint.
“I was down there, so why not rebound?” Gray said,
The 12 rebounds more than made up for Alaina Coates’ Southeastern Conference leading 10.7 rebounds a game. Coates, the other twin tower, will miss the NCAAs with an ankle injury.
After starting the game small, Staley decided to go even smaller to start the second quarter, sending Wilson to the bench. Her more inexperienced Gamecocks lineup just put the hammer down.
Over the next four minutes, Bianca Cuevas-Moore, getting just her fourth start since conference play started in January, would score 10 points in three minutes as a 9-point lead ballooned to a 36-17 South Carolina advantage. She finished the game with 18 points.
“We’re going to have to play the small lineup,” said Staley, who said she depends more on feel than analytics to try to find the five who will work best on the court. “For how long? As long as it is working.”
Khalia Webb led UNC Asheville (19-15) with 12 points, while Chatori Major added 10 points before fouling out in her final game.
Staley said Coates watched the game at home instead of on South Carolina’s bench on the advice of the university’s medical staff.
“They want her to just continue to rehab and not jump around and further injure herself,” Staley said.
Coates was an enthusiastic cheerleader on the bench as the Gamecocks won a third straight SEC Tournament.
UNC Asheville coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick grabbed Major as she walked to the bench after fouling up and lifted her off her feet for a 10-second hug.
Major was one of four seniors who came to Asheville even after the Bulldogs went 2-29 in Kirkpatrick’s first season. Major said she’s only got that kind of hug once — after the Bulldogs won their first Big South title in 2016 — and she admitted she couldn’t find the words to tell her coach how much she appreciated the past four years.
“They took a chance on me. I didn’t take a chance on them,” Kirkpatrick said of that recruiting class which went 9-22 in 2014-15 before winning back-to-back Big South tournaments. “I’m really going to miss them.”
UNC Asheville: The Bulldogs have gone from 2-28 with no Division I wins five years ago to back-to-back NCAA Tournament bids under Kirkpatrick. Asheville went more than 10 minutes without a point in the second and third quarters. The Bulldogs were a 14th seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, losing by 54 to Kentucky.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have been a No. 1 seed four years in a row, winning their openers by an average of 34 points. South Carolina played 11 players in the first half, including two that have played in only about a third of its games. Staley hasn’t lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament since her final season at Temple in 2008.
South Carolina advances to Sunday’s second round against the winner of No. 8 seed Arizona State against ninth-seeded Michigan State.