GREENVILLE, S.C. — There is no finding a defense that matches No. 1 South Carolina’s.
Nothing else in college basketball comes even close. The Gamecocks are simply too physical, too talented, too perceptive. They lead the nation in almost every key defensive metric. So to find a comparison, it’s necessary to search instead for a metaphor, and there is perhaps none better than a hydraulic press.
There’s one way in which the analogy is obvious: A hydraulic press creates overwhelming pressure for whatever object is placed inside it. But the more illustrative point lies in what happens next: Every object will react to that pressure somewhat differently, but all will emerge clearly, miserably distorted. Some objects shatter at the first touch. Others manage to retain their shape for several long, harrowing seconds before contorting into something unrecognizable. Some will find themselves flattened. Others will explode. But nothing will exit a hydraulic press looking the same way it did when it entered.
Which is exactly how South Carolina wins: Its defense forces teams to look unrecognizable. No one leaves with its typical offensive gameplay intact.
This is how the Gamecocks have won all season. And was how they won 59–43 over No. 4 UCLA on Saturday to make their third consecutive Elite Eight.
“I’m going to rely on the habits that we formed all season long,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “And if we do that, I mean, we’ve won every game.”
It was UCLA’s lowest scoring total in nearly a decade.
This was not the first time these teams had met this season. Back in November, UCLA became one of very few teams this year to meaningfully challenge South Carolina, eventually falling in overtime. As a result, Bruins coach Cori Close said she entered this Sweet 16 matchup confident, with a few specific points on spacing and ball reversals that she believed could work. But—well—there’s that hydraulic press.
“I thought we really were prepared about how they were going to pressure us,” Close said. “But we didn't do much of anything that we had planned on, at the beginning, in terms of how we wanted to create ball reversal and get downhill on attacks. And we were really standing and watching, and our movement away from the ball wasn't creating anything easier once people touched the ball.”
To UCLA’s credit, it began the game with its own strong performance on defense: South Carolina’s 25 first-half points were the fewest it had put up in a half all season. The Bruins were able to force the Gamecocks into some bad looks and awkward shots, including some uncharacteristic ones for their typically poised senior guard, Zia Cooke. But South Carolina’s defense was such that it didn’t have to worry. It was up at the half 25–15.
“For games like this, when offensive scoring is very low, we definitely rely on our defense to keep their scoring lower,” said Gamecocks senior Brea Beal.
And they kicked it up a notch in the second half. Playing before a thunderous crowd of mostly Gamecock fans—little more than an hour and a half from campus in Columbia, S.C.—they put on a show.
Aliyah Boston, the reigning National Player of the Year, was her typical assured presence in the post with 14 rebounds. Beal shone with 10 points and seven boards. Kamilla Cardoso came off the bench with 10 points of her own and one glorious chase-down block. (“Kamilla is a competitor,” Staley said. “I know she smiles a lot out there on the court, but she's a competitor. I mean, she's super athletic. She's quick. She knows how important uncontested baskets are.”) For the last few minutes of the game, with a comfortable lead in what amounted to a home court environment, Staley pulled her stars to roaring cheers and let her reserves soak in the tournament atmosphere.
It was a kind of overwhelming victory rare this late in the tournament. (Such is the power of the hydraulic press.) As other top seeds have fallen surprisingly early, South Carolina has been undeterred, continuing on as it has all year. Which brought Staley to one of the most salient points of her postgame press conference: This isn’t the same No. 1 team that it was at the start of the year. It’s better.
“I just think we're a much more mature basketball team,” Staley said. “We know each other. We're a lot more linked up. We communicate a lot better… We understand our roles, and because of that, we're a much leaner basketball team than we were back in November.”
Which is perhaps the most terrifying part about this team: Yes, it forces whoever it plays to change their schemes and output and ideas. But the Gamecocks are always changing, too—and so far, at least, they’ve only gotten better.