#1 South Carolina loses #3 LSU, 88-64, snaps Angel Reese’s double-double streak in battle of the undefeated

LSU's Angel Reese (left) and South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, both contenders for National Player of the Year, face off during the first quarter Sunday at Colonial Life Arena.  (Lance King/Getty Images)

LSU’s Angel Reese (left) and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, both contenders for National Player of the Year, will battle it out during the first quarter Sunday at Colonial Life Arena. (Lance King/Getty Images)

No. 1 South Carolina not only maintained his undefeated season, but also exhibited another note of dominance. The Gamecocks (25-0, 12-0 SEC) pulled away from No. 3 LSU (23-1, 11-1 SEC) in the second half to win, 88-64, at home in a battle of the last two undefeated teams in the Division I women’s basketball to solidify their status as favorites for the national title.

Tilt was billed as the Game of the Year and fittingly played hours before the Super Bowl started in Arizona. Anticipation was high after Ohio State lost its first game of the season three weeks ago leaving the two SEC teams alone in the undefeated category. It was the first time since 1993 that two SEC teams ranked in the top 5 faced each other. The contest is the only regular season matchup between the two and will likely determine the SEC regular season champion.

It was also a one-on-one matchup between two of the widely accepted National Player of the Year contenders, LSU’s Angel Reese and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, who is the defending winner. Reese struggled against the length and flair of South Carolina’s frontcourt and got himself into trouble early with an ill-advised Boston catch to a press. He hit a double-double in every game of the season before Sunday but fell short of his season average (23.5 ppg/15.8 rpg) with 16 points (5-of-15) and four rebounds.

Boston was as efficient and dominant as ever with 14 points (5-of-9) and nine rebounds, but it was young Kamilla Cardoso, with some Boston assists, who made the difference in another strong game for the big boys. Cardoso created the South Carolina split in the second half and finished with 18 points (7-of-9) and 13 rebounds in 21 minutes.

How South Carolina Defeated LSU

Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina has been selling out for it since late January and fans, donning a mix of Play4Kay and Gamecock scarlet game pink, roared early and often.

The Tigers, who haven’t played many high-energy games and none in a hostile environment, went flat and trailed by 11 points in four minutes. They rallied into single digits, but could never get over the deficit enough to force a close game. It was a 42-32 South Carolina lead at the half and 64-48 in the final frame.

South Carolina dominated on the glass, 43-25. The Gamecocks are averaging 49.9 per game to rank third in the nation and LSU is averaging 50.4, ranking second. They have the two highest rebound rates in Division I. South Carolina won in paint points, 46-38, and had the most blocks, 10-6. As is common with one of the deepest teams in the nation, the SC bench outscored LSU, 34-15.

Five players reached double figures for South Carolina, which had one of its strongest shooting games of the season (35 of 61 for 57%). Senior guard Zia Cooke had 17 points and was shut down early, going nine points on 4-of-6 shooting in the first quarter. Point guard Raven Johnson played 21 minutes off the bench and went 10 (5-of-7) with three assists. Senior guard Brea Beal had 11 points (4-of-7) and hit both South Carolina 3-pointers. She added seven rebounds and four assists. Laeticia Amihere scored six points and had six rebounds.

Alexis Morris, a fifth-year transfer guard, led LSU with 23 points (11-of-29) and six rebounds. But no one else stepped up to help her and the Tigers fell behind quickly. No player other than Morris, Reese and freshman Sa’Myah Smith (seven points, six rebounds, two assists) has more than six points or three rebounds.

Fouls were also a problem for LSU. Reese tied two before the end of the first quarter and had to play shy when she came back in the second quarter. Senior guard LaDazhia Williams was fouled out, Reese and Smith finished with four, and freshman guard Flau’jae Johnson had three. The team was 40% off the floor overall.

It was the first time two SEC teams had met when they were both 20-0 or better and also the first time two teams had met 10-0 or better in conference play.

Implications of March Madness

The DI women’s basketball selection committee announced its first top-16 reveal Thursday night, and South Carolina was the No. 1 seed. ESPN reported that it was the one team the group didn’t need to discuss. There is very little that could happen over the next few weeks that would affect this. LSU is on the 2 seed line as the #5 team in the pick team standings and the program with the best chance currently of climbing into the 1 seed line.

The committee uses NET as one of its criteria for seeding teams into the tournament. It also balances talent availability, bad losses, common opponents, competitive play, significant wins, program/conference strength, among other aspects.

South Carolina’s schedule strength going into Sunday is ranked No. 4 by Massey and the Gamecocks have significant wins over Stanford, Maryland and UConn. They have not lost since the SEC Tournament championship game a year ago.

LSU’s schedule strength through Sunday is ranked 59th by Massey. Four programs on the committee’s Top 16 list have Massey SOS above 20: Texas (21), Virginia Tech (26), and Villanova (47). Based on the committee’s views on LSU in the first reveal, it doesn’t seem likely that they would suddenly drop the Tigers all the way and out of the 2 line based on the loss.

The LSU tournament resumes

The Tigers played a light and easy non-conference schedule that included blowouts against Bellarmine (+75), Mississippi Valley (+70), Western Carolina (+73), Houston Christian (+54), and Northwestern State (+55). LSU head coach Kim Mulkey said early in the season that the schedule was so weak because he didn’t know at the time of scheduling that they would field Reese and the rest of the strong transfer crew.

“We inherited a program that won nine basketball games, and if you think I’m going to outrun programs before I know what I have, that would be a terrible mistake,” Mulkey said in November, via Nola.com.

The SEC was also an easier ride than in previous years and is ranked fifth in program strength by Massy Ratings behind the rest of the Power Five conferences. LSU came into Sunday’s contest having faced only one AP Top 25 ranked team with a win over then No. 1 ranked team. 24 Arkansas, age 69-45, in December. When they played again in mid-January, it was a three-point victory and Arkansas was already out of the standings.

A difficult period has begun for one of the best-placed teams in the country. Tennessee played LSU to a final possession in a noisy Maravich Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Later that week, LSU narrowly escaped Georgia in overtime in a bad offensive finish for the programs. And a week ago, Texas A&M nearly upset the Tigers.

LSU has Ole Miss (19-5, 8-3) at home, a trip to Florida (14-11, 3-9) and Vanderbilt (11-15, 2-10), and a home final against Mississippi State ( 17-7, 6-5) ahead of the SEC tournament.

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