No. 1 Gamecocks host Ole Miss in rescheduled SEC game. How to watch, what to know

·6 min read
Tracy Glantz/tglantz@thestate.com

No. 1 South Carolina women’s basketball (18-1, 6-1 SEC) is making up its previously postponed game against No. 24 Ole Miss on Thursday at Colonial Life Arena.

This week’s matchup with the Rebels (17-2, 5-1 SEC) replaced the Gamecocks’ annually scheduled meeting with UConn, and head coach Dawn Staley said Monday the decision came down to prioritizing a conference contest over a non-conference game.

“I’m always going to do what’s best for our program, even if it hurts me personally and if it hurts the fans a little bit,” Staley said. “I hope everyone that was coming on Thursday when we were playing Connecticut comes (for Ole Miss). We’ve got a good, competitive game, a top-three conference game, so it should be pretty exciting to rock this building out.”

The Ole Miss game will be televised at the same time, 6 p.m., and on the same channel, ESPN, as the UConn game had been scheduled.

Tickets for the previously scheduled matchup with UConn are being honored for the Ole Miss game, as the Rebels come to Columbia third in the SEC standings on a surge in their fourth season under head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin.

Here’s what to watch for in Thursday’s game.

Staley ‘comfortable’ with LeLe Grissett starting or coming off the bench

South Carolina starting guard Zia Cooke didn’t play in the Gamecocks’ 55-point win over Vanderbilt on Monday as she recovered from a turned ankle she suffered in the Arkansas game Jan. 16.

Veteran LeLe Grissett filled Cooke’s role in the starting lineup and excelled in her first start of the season. Grissett scored 14 points in the Gamecocks’ rout of the Commodores, including seven points in the first quarter.

Staley, speaking Wednesday, said that all of the Gamecocks were back to getting their full reps in practice ahead of the Ole Miss game, and Cooke’s role as a starter hasn’t been brought into question by Grissett’s big night on Monday.

Cooke has had an up-and-down start to conference play, going 8 of 15 from the field against Kentucky on Jan. 9 but struggling just a few days later against Texas A&M with 3 of 16 shooting on Jan. 13.

Staley said Grissett can perform well either coming off the bench or starting, while Cooke is accustomed to being a starter.

“Psychologically, I want everybody at a good place where they can help us win,” Staley said. “Zia’s our starting guard. LeLe is very comfortable coming off the bench and being that energy and the stat filler that we need.”

But if Cooke’s status changes, what Staley saw from Grissett on Monday makes her feel good about starting her if she was needed.

“If something happens between today and tomorrow, I feel comfortable inserting LeLe into the starting lineup,” Staley said.

Evaluating Shakira Austin, Rebels’ talent

Ole Miss started off the 2021-22 season with a loss to Belmont on Nov. 12 and fell to then-No. 7 Tennessee on Jan. 9, but the Rebels have maintained a strong presence and landed in the AP poll this week for the first time since 2007 after a nine-point win at then-No. 23 Kentucky last week.

Staley said Ole Miss is doing what they’ve always done, but the Rebels are staying competitive longer than previous seasons because of their expanded talent pool.

“When you have talent, you’re able to deliver for long stretches,” Staley said. “Two (or) three years ago, you could see glimpses of it, but now it’s full time. More of the game is played at a level that Yolett likes to play on both sides of the basketball because she’s got the talent to do that.”

Maryland transfer center Shakira Austin is playing a key role in Ole Miss’ success, leading the Rebels in scoring with 14.6 points per game (15th in the SEC) and rebounding with 8.6 boards per game (fourth in the SEC).

“I know when she’s not in the game, they do look like a totally different basketball team,” Staley said. “They lean on her a lot. She’s delivered throughout the season. Tough matchup for our bigs.”

Ole Miss has won the turnover margin in every game its played this year, an area where South Carolina has struggled throughout the season. The Rebels are on a four-game win streak, tallying victories over Alabama, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Kentucky before heading to Columbia.

“They’re just a team that’s going to play for 40 minutes, impose their will on you and let the chips fall where they may,” Staley said. “It is gonna be a doozy of a game.”

Taking stock of the SEC

The Gamecocks are in an unusual spot being ranked No. 1 in the country while being No. 2 in the SEC standings behind Tennessee.

South Carolina lost its conference opener at Missouri on Dec. 30 and has since fallen below Tennessee in the SEC standings. The Vols, ranked No. 4 nationally, are undefeated in conference play and travel to Columbia for a game on Feb. 20.

Rescheduling the Ole Miss matchup was key to improving USC’s chances at the SEC regular-season title. Without the Ole Miss game and with a scenario in which South Carolina beats Tennessee but both teams win all other games, the Vols would have one more game played and a higher SEC winning percentage. Therefore, Tennessee would win the regular-season title.

Playing the Ole Miss game solved that predicament, but Staley’s Gamecocks are in the midst of an SEC stretch that started with Vanderbilt on Monday, continues with the Rebels on Thursday and includes a trip to Florida (fifth in the SEC) on Sunday.

The Gamecocks are still taking every game one at a time, Staley said, but she understands the gravity of needing to win out the best shot at the SEC regular-season title. Ole Miss is just behind South Carolina in the SEC standings and would take the No. 2 spot from the Gamecocks with a win on Thursday.

“We’re in a position where we’re looking up,” Staley said. “There’s somebody that has a better record than us in the league, so every game becomes super important. Ole Miss, for us, we have to win because we want to create separation, and also just stay on Tennessee’s heels. It doesn’t get any easier.

“We’re taking one game at a time — one big game at a time — because they’re all big.”

South Carolina has claimed five of the last eight SEC regular-season titles, with the most recent win in 2020.

How to watch South Carolina vs. Ole Miss

Who: No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks (18-1, 6-1 SEC) vs. No. 24 Ole Miss Rebels (17-2, 5-1 SEC)

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Where: Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.

Watch: ESPN