The No. 1 seed South Carolina women's basketball team defeated No. 16 seed Mercer 79-53 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday night. The win marks head coach Dawn Staley's 500th in her career as a head coach, and with the win the Gamecocks will advance to play No. 8 seed Oregon State in the round of 32.
The Gamecocks used dominant play in the paint from sophomore forward Aliyah Boston, junior forward Victaria Saxton and sophomore forward Laeticia Amihere to keep the Bears at bay and propel themselves to victory.
South Carolina totaled 42 points in the paint compared to 16 by Mercer. On top of that, the Gamecocks out-rebounded Mercer 52-27.
Boston finished the night with yet another double-double, one that she secured before halftime. She ended up with 20 points, 18 rebounds and three assists.
Saxton also had 20 points in her own right, and Amihere proved to be a useful spark off the bench in the absence of senior guard LeLe Grissett, who isn't playing in the tournament due to injury. Amihere finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.
"Everybody has to step up; it's not just one person. I think everybody — it's a team effort, and I think that's what we kind of did, and we just have to push even harder moving forward," Saxton said.
South Carolina had the first quarter under control, outscoring the Bears 23-12. Of those 23 points in the first quarter, 18 came from the paint.
The start of the second quarter was almost the complete opposite. The Mercer defense went on a tear, forcing four Gamecock turnovers. At one point, the Bears went on a 13-4 run to close the gap to within 2 points thanks in part to redshirt senior guard Jada Lewis, who had 8 points in the quarter. Lewis finished the game with 14 points.
After Mercer was able to cut the lead to 2 points, the Gamecocks took a 13-3 run of their own into halftime, leading 43-32. Boston and Saxton were two of the only three Gamecocks to score in the second quarter, each scoring 8 points. Junior guard Destiny Littleton also scored during the quarter — she earned 4 of her 8 total points in the second quarter.
South Carolina rode the momentum from that late second quarter run into the start of the second half and never took its foot of the gas, outscoring Mercer 21-15 in the third quarter. Saxton continued to lift the South Carolina offense in the third quarter, scoring 7 points and grabbing a rebound.
"V plays the unsung hero for us time and time again," Staley said. "She's one that, you need players like her. She doesn't like the spotlight but the contributions that she gives us are highlighted throughout the stat sheet, and I like the role that she plays for us."
Sophomore guard Zia Cooke woke up for South Carolina in the third quarter. She only had one shot attempt in the first half, which she missed. But, in the third quarter she went 2-5 from the field and 4-4 from the charity stripe, giving her 8 points in the quarter and her first points of the game.
The fourth quarter was much of the same for the Gamecocks, as they outscored Mercer 15-6. Cooke added 5 more points, giving her 13 for the night. Junior guard Destanni Henderson, who averages 12.1 points per game, finished the night with no points.
South Carolina will take on No. 8 seed Oregon State on Tuesday, March 23. The Beavers are coming off a 83-59 win over No. 9 seed Florida State in the first round. Tipoff time is to be determined.