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Analysis: No. 1 Թϱ women's basketball cruises to 1st round NCAA Tournament victory over Presbyterian

<p>Sophomore forward Chloe Kitts goes up for a shot during South Carolina’s game against Presbyterian in round one of the 2024 NCAA Women’s Tournament on March 22, 2024. Kitts led the team in scoring with 21 points in the Gamecocks’ 91-39 victory over the Blue Hose.</p>
Sophomore forward Chloe Kitts goes up for a shot during Թϱ’s game against Presbyterian in round one of the 2024 NCAA Women’s Tournament on March 22, 2024. Kitts led the team in scoring with 21 points in the Gamecocks’ 91-39 victory over the Blue Hose.

The No. 1 Թϱ women's basketball team kicked off its NCAA Tournament run with a dominant 91-39 victory over No. 16 Presbyterian.

Junior forward Sania Feagin made an early impact, scoring Թϱ's first 4 points . Feagin earned a spot in the starting rotation after senior forward Kamilla Cardoso was suspended for fighting during the team's previous match in the SEC Tournament Championship. 

The Gamecocks were also missing junior guard Bree Hall, who was held out for "precautionary reasons," according to a team spokeswoman. Despite missing two starters, the Gamecocks showed dominant defense and efficient offense throughout. 

Defense was key for the Gamecocks during the first half. It tallied eight steals and three blocks and did not commit a single shooting foul. Presbyterian struggled to convert from the field, going 12-33, including 1-11 on 3-point shots

Freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley, playing in her first NCAA Tournament game, was the focal point of Թϱ's offense in the first half. She led the team with 12 points, all of which were from behind the 3-point line.

"It was great," Fulwiley said. "The atmosphere was great because we're home, so I love that ... I was just excited to be here, with my teammates and just living in the moment, just enjoying every step of the way."

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Fulwiley was supported on offense by sophomore forward Chloe Kitts and senior guard Te-Hina Paopao. The three combined for 30 of the Gamecocks' 48 first half points and helped the team enter halftime with a commanding 48-25 lead

But head coach Dawn Staley said she was looking for the team to make some improvements in the second half.

"I just thought (Presbyterian) exploited our inability to guard on the weak side of the floor," Staley said. "We did a much better job collectively. Some players do have some work to do when it comes to that, but we did a great job covering up from the first half to the second half."

The Gamecocks quickly jumped out to a 5-point scoring run to begin the third quarter, holding Presbyterian to 0 points for the first three minutes. 

The Blue Hose had no answer for the Gamecocks, offensively or defensively, as the team managed to score just 14 points throughout the entire second half.

Sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins was prominent on the defensive side of the ball, stifling Presbyterian's offense throughout the game and generating turnovers for Թϱ. She finished the game with four blocks and two steals

Kitts had the best offensive performance, though, finishing the game with a team-high 21 points on perfect 9-9 shooting. Kitts played a crucial role in the absence of Cardoso and Hall, and she was a force on the glass, grabbing 13 rebounds.

Kitts said this performance was important not only for the team, but for her individually.

"I feel like it was important for my confidence," Kitts said. "Recently, I've been low on confidence, but my coaches and teammates, they uplift me, and they were finding me and just passing me the ball."

Staley said she was pleased with how well the team performed despite being down two of its most impactful players.

"Granted, you want your full squad," Staley said. "We've been very successful when we've had our full squad. We have two starters out, and in preparation of that, I don't think about having two starters out. We just worry about who we have that's ready to play, and we just try to coach them up. They've had enough experience."

With the victory, Թϱ (33-0, 16-0 SEC) will advance to the NCAA Tournament round of 32, where it will face the No. 8 seed North Carolina Tar Heels (20-12, 11-7 ACC). The game will take place on Sunday, March 24, at Colonial Life Arena with the tip-off time to be announced


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