South Carolina women's basketball: How the Gamecocks kept Caitlin Clark in check

On3 imageby:Chris Wellbaum04/09/24


South Carolina women's basketball National Championship celebration at Colonial Life Arena

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South Carolina knew that to beat Iowa, it had to control Caitlin Clark. A year after she torched the Gamecocks for 41 points, eight assists, and six rebounds, South Carolina largely kept her under control. How did South Carolina do it?

Reasonable expectations
This had a lot to do with giving the players confidence. South Carolina got shaken by Iowa and Clark’s fast start last season and the Gamecocks needed to avoid a repeat.

Dawn Staley made it clear that the goal was not to stop Clark from scoring, it was to make her an inefficient scorer and limit her playmaking. 

It’s not often you can give up 30 points to a player and say your defense worked, but that is a testament to how good Clark is. She needed 28 shots to get there, and she shot less than 36% and 5-13 from three. So despite the overall stats, Dawn Staley was able to frame it as a win for her players, and their confidence grew as the game went on.

“We knew she was going to get her points. We wanted her to get her points in an inefficient way,” Staley said. “I look at the stat sheet, it’s beautiful. If she’s shooting 50 percent, we lose the basketball game.”

The analytics support what Staley said. Clark’s Efficiency Stat, which uses turnovers and missed shots to control for points, rebounds, and assists, was 20. So was Tessa Johnson’s. If Clark and Johnson have the same efficiency, that’s a win for South Carolina.

Clark’s offensive rating was 92.2. Six Gamecocks (and three Hawkeyes) had better offensive ratings. Again, that’s a win for South Carolina.

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Don’t panic, play your game
It’s been something the Gamecocks have preached all postseason: play our game, rely on our coaching, and do what we always do.

It’s why they didn’t panic even when Kamilla Cardoso had to hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Tennessee (as the lady Vols noticeably unraveled). It’s why they had no problem letting a freshman take the most important shot in the Elite Eight. And it’s why, despite allowing a game-opening 10-0 run and letting Clark score a record 18 first-quarter points, South Carolina was still confident.

“We weren’t worried about how many people were going to watch or how many people were in the gym,” Ashlyn Watkins said. “Act like it’s a regular home game in Colonial Life, and that’s what soothed us and calmed us.”

That extended to the officiating. Everyone knew the officiating would be biased for Iowa – it had been all tournament. It was again on Sunday, but instead of getting caught up in the bad calls, South Carolina shrugged.

Early in the fourth quarter, Raven Johnson was called for a bogus foul for being close to Clark, instead of getting upset, she smiled, clapped, and appeared to say “We know how it is.”

Make everything hard
Clark is famous for her logo threes. She tried a few on Sunday (and made one almost-logo shot), but South Carolina mostly eliminated those shots. 

The Gamecocks picked up Clark before halfcourt whether she had the ball or not, stayed as close to her as possible, and never gave up on the play. Hall kept a hand in Clark’s face nonstop, and if she got beaten, she didn’t give up.

There was no better example than Raven Johnson’s two blocks on Clark. Both times, Johnson was beaten on the play, but instead of quitting, she continued chasing the play and got the block.

The extended pressure took away the quick, long threes Clark is known for and the easy pick and rolls. South Carolina also gave Clark different looks. Johnson is a smaller and quicker defender while Hall is long and rangey. Their different styles forced Clark to adjust. 

“I studied her moves, and I was ready,” Johnson said. “I had confidence this year. I was telling myself last year’s not going to happen again.”

(Quick aside: Johnson put on some weight following her ACL injury. She stayed in Columbia last summer and lost almost 30 pounds. That offseason work was a huge reason why she was able to effectively guard Clark this season.)

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Wear her down
South Carolina owes UConn’s Nika Muhl a thank you card. Her relentless defense on Clark on Friday night made South Carolina’s job on Sunday easier.

Ahead of the game, South Carolina was confident it would wear her down by the fourth quarter. Instead, Clark’s fatigue was showing by halftime. When Raven Johnson stole the ball from Clark at midcourt and took it the other way for a layup to give South Carolina a three-point lead at halftime, it was a sign Clark was tired sooner than they expected.

“It took four quarters. Wearing her down all four quarters,” Bree Hall said. “Coming into the second half I think we really wore her down.”

It wasn’t just Johnson and Hall, the primary defenders on Clark. Everyone had to switch and step out on screens. 

That’s where South Carolina’s length came into play. Just get a hand in the shooter’s face and make her think about it, and that’s enough. Outside of Hannah Stuelke, Iowa’s lineup is basically 6-0 and under. Outside of Te-Hina Poapao (and MiLaysia Fulwiley, who is so quick and strong that she plays much bigger), South Carolina’s entire lineup is 6-0 and over.*

“To be able to have all those fresh legs on Caitlin was really tough,” Lisa Bluder said. “And not only their depth, their height. I’m not just talking about their centers. They’re really pretty big at every position, which makes it hard. They could recover really well when we had threes.”

*Going by “I’ve stood next to her” heights, not listed heights.

Play aggressive but smart on offense
This is a Dawn Staley staple. Facing an elite scorer? Make her defend.

She’s been doing it for 16 years at South Carolina. I’ll never forget January 2020 when South Carolina faced Kentucky and Rhyne Howard, who were picked to win the game. South Carolina ran three straight plays – probably the first three of the season – for Brea Beal, who was guarded by Howard. Beal scored on all three and the game was over then and there.

It wasn’t as singular as that, but Clark likes to rest on defense and South Carolina made sure she had to work. Raven Johnson took 11 shots. She only made one, but she shot with confidence, a far cry from last season. MiLaysia Fulwiley pushed the tempo and created havoc on her way to nine points and a team-high four assists.

“I don’t like to lose. It irks my nerves when we get down like (the first quarter),” Fulwiley said. “I just go out there and try to run the score up because I’m a winner and I’m going to do whatever it takes to win. I think that showed.”

South Carolina ran whenever it could, denying Clark a chance to rest on defense.

“We also have to play our side of the ball,” Staley said before the game. “They’ve got to defend. We got to put some points on the scoreboard.”

Again, that showed in the analytics. Clark’s net points, which measures points scored against points allowed, was only 15.5.

“That makes it stuck in everyone’s head,” Fulwiley said. “When you take down someone like that, as good as she is, that shows everyone how dedicated you are to the game and how dedicated we were to our game plan. I’m so excited that all of us came out there and stood on straight business.”

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