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The margin is razor thin at the top, and this time, South Carolina came out on the winning side of it.
The No. 1-ranked Gamecocks, coming off a heart-wrenching season finale, knocked down No. 5 N.C. State, 66-57, at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the first day of the college basketball season.
The Gamecocks, who are heavy favorites to win it all, were led by guards Zia Cooke (17 points) and Destanni Henderson (14). They shot 49% with contributions throughout the roster and different players stepping up as needed. The bench finished with 18 points, led by Laeticia Amihere (nine points on 4-for-6 shooting, five rebounds, two steals) and Destiny Littleton (seven points, four rebounds).
South Carolina righted its shooting issues from last season's upset loss to N.C. State and continued its dominance on the boards, 35-30. Littleton came up with two huge rebounds in the second quarter despite solid boxing out by the Wolfpack everywhere else.
N.C. State trailed by eight going into the fourth quarter and went more than five minutes with only one bucket, made by Elissa Cunane that cut it to six. Kayla Jones scored five consecutive points to pull back within eight, giving N.C. State life at 2:48. South Carolina pushed it back to double digits by going 4-for-4 from the line.
The win came despite a quiet first outing offensively from Player of the Year contender Aliyah Boston, a two-time Lisa Leslie award winner for the nation's best center. Boston scored eight points and had nearly as many blocks (five) with six rebounds and two assists.
She battled in the post all night with Cunane, another contender for awards who was also quiet. Cunane took an early seat on the bench after a foul 90 seconds into the contest and finished with eight points, three rebounds and two assists.
The Wolfpack relied on 34 combined points by forward Jakia Brown-Turner (18) and guard Raina Perez, who was 7-for-9 for 18 points. The team was a combined 41.4% and 5-for-18 from 3-point range.
South Carolina emerged from the offseason firing. The Gamecocks hit on every one of their first three attempts with buckets by Brea Beal, Henderson and Cooke. Boston got on the board at 4:57, marking the fourth of five starters to score. And Amihere laid one in at 1:11 off a smart assist by transfer Kamilla Cardoso, while the balanced attack continued to a 25-19 lead at halftime.
The Wolfpack, who trailed by 10 in the second, pulled within one point two times in the third quarter, but the Gamecocks had an answer at each turn. They used an 8-0 run to head into the final quarter up, 47-39, and it built from there.
A great opening night doesn’t determine a season, yet South Carolina coming out this well against a top-five opponent has to be concerning for foes. The Gamecocks are stellar on paper with all 11 players from the Final Four team back, plus a No. 1-ranked recruiting class joining the fray and a star transfer named ACC freshman and co-defensive player of the year in 2020-21.
They came out sharp, held a good Wolfpack team off every time they closed in and dominated the final quarter. That’s a championship-caliber performance in nearly every facet of the game. The turnovers will need to be cleaned up and 3-point shooting (3-of-12) will need to be addressed, but South Carolina proved it can be as dangerous as everyone believed.
The first day of the college basketball season is a lot like the opening day of the NCAA tournament. It’s a full day of exciting action — the women’s season tipped at 11 a.m. ET — and it doesn’t much matter if you don't know anyone on the roster.
Comparisons to the men’s game are obnoxious, but necessary. The men’s season didn’t tip until late afternoon on the East Coast, and it felt like a missed opportunity. Save the high-brow matchups until the evening when more of an audience can tune in, but keep matchups throughout the day for fans to find an outlet for their excitement. The women's game does this really well on opening day. Now if only more games were on linear TV or at least easier to stream.
Would fans normally tune into a Milwaukee vs. Ball State matchup? Unlikely. But when these two are in a one-possession game with 24 seconds to go and the season is a mere 2 1/2 hours old — well yeah, you tune in. (Ball State won in OT, 84-75.)
It was also encouraging to have fans back in full force at arenas. ESPN broadcaster Ryan Ruocco rather hilariously noted during the game at N.C. State that the mics were probably picking up the bellowing man behind them. The nation and world are not past the COVID-19 pandemic by any means, but the return to pre-pandemic normalcy is refreshing when done safely.
Upset alert: Hillmon saves Michigan, but for how long
No. 11 Michigan was nearly the first upset of the season at the hands of IUPUI as much as themselves. The Wolverines edged out in overtime at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, behind 30 points and 15 rebounds from Naz Hillmon.
The rest of the starters combined for 10 points. Leigha Brown, typically a starter, came off the bench to score 18 with four assists. That’s 72% of the offense coming from two players. They made 17 of the team’s 24 shot attempts. That’s untenable.
Hillmon, who was 12-for-22 , can’t do all of the heavy lifting if Michigan is going to be competitive every night in the Big Ten. This was the same problem they fell into continuously last season. That 50-point outing by Hillmon that grabbed LeBron James’ attention was in an 81-77 loss to Ohio State. Only three teammates scored. .
Michigan is on high upset alert from here on out.
The other ranked Big Ten teams in action fared better. No. 9 Iowa dispatched New Hampshire, 93-50, shooting 51.8% overall and 36.4% (8-for-22) from 3-point range. Caitlin Clark had 26 points (going 11-for-11 from the free throw line) with eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block. No. 4 Maryland took care of Longwood, 97-67, in the first game of the day. Angel Reese had 21 points and 14 rebounds.
Khayla Pointer headlines Kim Mulkey's first win at LSU
Khayla Pointer opted to stay at LSU another year under the new COVID eligibility rule and opened her fifth season with a triple-double.
The All-SEC guard finished with 13 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds to lead LSU over visiting Nicholls State, 82-40, for head coach Kim Mulkey's first win at the school. It was the third triple-double in program history, following Katherine Graham (2010) and Cornelia Gayden, who had two in the 1994-95 season.
Pointer is one of three players who took advantage of the extra eligibility, and she even opted to stay after her aunt, Nikki Fargas, resigned as head coach in April. Fargas later joined the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces as team president.
Guard Jailin Cherry (12 points, three assists) and center Faustine Aifuwa (eight points, four rebounds) are the two others who stayed another year. Rosters around the country are super-loaded because of the rule, and that means a lot of teams are coming back full of experience. That will be something to watch throughout the year and years to come as coaches balance veterans with raw talent and winning now versus more development.
The Tigers' first major test won't be until Dec. 2 against Iowa State in the SEC/Big 12 challenge.