Mama Dembele, Lauren Hansen, Haley Troup, Aijha Blackwell, Hayley Frank, prepare to take the court (copy)

From left to right, Mama Dembele, Lauren Hansen, Haley Troup, Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank prepare to take the court against Alabama A&M on Dec. 12 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia. The Tigers begin conference play Thursday night at home against top-ranked South Carolina.

From the start of the 2021-22 women’s college basketball season, the question on fans’ minds has overwhelmingly been, “Who can beat South Carolina?” The women’s hoops squad snatched the notoriety from legendary programs like UConn as the team to beat.

Missouri will be the first SEC school to take on the Gamecocks as they two teams open conference play. It could either be the Tigers’ biggest win of the past two seasons or a momentum-stopping loss that ends their three-game winning streak.

The past four times these two teams have met, the Gamecocks have bested Missouri and dominated under Staley.

The last matchup gave the Tigers their eighth loss of the 2019-20 season in a 77-62 win for South Carolina. Missouri was only able to hang with the likes of Gamecocks forward Aliyah Boston and guards Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke for the first quarter.

“Obviously, South Carolina’s got a great squad. I just watched them last night come back and take on Stanford,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said Dec. 22 after the Tigers beat Illinois. “That’s a really good team, very well-coached and very talented team. And so we start off SEC play with the best in the country.”

There aren’t very many weak spots in South Carolina for Missouri to take advantage of.

The main area of focus should be on the defensive side of the ball. The Gamecocks score 72.6 points per game but average 16.2 turnovers.

This is where key Tigers defenders such as Mama Dembele, Lauren Hansen and Aijha Blackwell come in. Each guard has double-digit steals on the season.

Dembele leads the charge with 18 and a baseline-to-baseline approach defending opponents. The sophomore guard typically picks up the ball as soon as it is taken out, despite Missouri only going with a full-court press here and there.

Bringing pressure and a flare of thoughtful aggressiveness will be essential to cause the Gamecocks to turn the ball over more.

“Oh, we got to get better,” Pingeton said when asked about how her squad has improved defensively. “We went through a couple of games where I didn’t think we communicated very well in our transition. The matchups in transition have got to be a lot better. You know, we have moments, we have flashes, but we don’t sustain it.”

Against Illinois, the Tigers had one of those flashes, holding the Fighting Illini to 36% shooting from the field. This kind of defending is ideal when going up against South Carolina, but that still won’t seal the deal. The Gamecocks proved that holding them to a lower shooting efficiency still won’t grant opponents a win when they beat No. 2 Stanford on Dec. 21 shooting 35.6% from the field. This is where resiliency and a handful of scoring outlets come in for Missouri.

“Those first couple of possessions, we just got completely manhandled and on our heels and in you know, that’s not when we’re at our best. We’ve got to be the aggressors, and it was good to see them be able to flip that switch and understand,” Pingeton said.

Given that three South Carolina players average double-digit points, with Boston leading with 16.9, playing catch up is unavoidable.

Scoring outlets in Blackwell, Hansen, guard Hayley Frank and forward LaDazhia Williams are key to doing that. All four Tigers shined in their 11th win of the season, each scoring in double digits, and Blackwell recorded another double-double.

Missouri will need to spread out its scoring just like this to balance out the brute force of the Gamecocks.

Blackwell and Williams will be in the paint battling for boards and points against a South Carolina team that has 11 players 6 feet and up.

The Tigers will need to see balls go their way more often than not and will need more than just Blackwell’s contribution to rebounding. Hansen and Frank will need to connect on 3-pointers.

  • I am a sports reporter for the fall semester 2020 and I am currently studying sports journalism print and digital. You can reach me at shannonbelt@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

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