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CAROLINA WOMEN

CAROLINA WOMEN: Gamecocks down No. 9 Oregon, face UConn noon Monday (ESPN)

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No. 1 South Carolina routed No. 9  Oregon 80-63 Sunday, setting up a game against #2 UConn on Monday.

Sunday’s game was a game some 20 months in the making, ever since South Carolina and Oregon emerged as the two best teams in the 2019-20 season. They seemed destined to meet in the national championship game until the NCAA Tournament was canceled. They were supposed to meet in the Battle 4 Atlantis last season, until it was canceled. And a proposed home-and-home series was canceled when the Pac 12 temporarily canceled non-conference games.

They finally got together, although neither team was at full strength. Oregon was without three players, including Nyara Sabally, who scored 30 in the win over Oklahoma, and South Carolina was without LeLe Grissett and Raven Johnson. It might not have mattered.

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South Carolina wasted no time taking control of the game. The Gamecocks’ big three, Destanni Henderson, Zia Cooke, and Aliyah Boston, each scored to start the game. Then South Carolina went on a 11-2 run to go up double digits barely five minutes into the game.

That was how the rest of the game went as Cooke did the heavy lifting and the Gamecocks went after the Ducks in waves. Laeticia Amihere and Kamilla Cardoso sparked an 8-2 run to end the first quarter and give the Gamecocks a 27-14 lead. Amihere sparked another 8-2 run, capped by a Henderson layup at the buzzer, to end the first half and take a 44-26 halftime lead. Then Cooke spurred an 11-2 run to start the third quarter that put the Gamecocks up 27.

“It was a couple of runs, especially the one at the end of the first half,” Kelly Graves said. ”We kind of were hanging around and then that one in the second half.”

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Oregon made its move late in the third quarter with a 13-0 run. Cardoso drew a foul and made both free throws to stop the run. Then Cooke, who scored just four points Saturday against Buffalo, her lowest output since her freshman season, took over. She blocked a shot, grabbed the rebound, drew a foul, and made both free throws to put South Carolina back up 19 going into the fourth. Then South Carolina scored the first eight points of the fourth quarter for a 12-0 run to put the game out of reach.

Cooke ended up with one of the best games of her already impressive career. She had 20 points on 6-9 shooting, made 2-3 from deep and all six of her free throws. She tied her career-high with five assists, and added two steals and a block, all in just 29 minutes.

“The game that she played today, very unselfish, very efficient, taking good shots,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “I think she got them to forget about her ability to score because she started off passing the ball.”

Amihere continued her outstanding start to the season, scoring a career-high 18 points and hitting 6-10 from the floor and 6-7 from the line. She also had seven rebounds and two steals, and even looked like she was about to dunk before a foul knocked her off-balance.

“LA has been getting back to 100% health,” Staley said. “Now that she’s a junior, things start clearing up for her. I think it’s mounting.”

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Amihere credited the experience with Team Canada this summer, both in the AmeriCup Tournament and the Olympics, with preparing for the season.

“This summer has helped me a lot just playing against experienced and skilled players,” Amihere. I’m grateful to have that summer under my belt and I think it’s helping me right now.”

For the Gamecocks, it was a vintage South Carolina game. The Gamecocks were plus-12 in points off turnovers, plus-11 rebounding, plus-10 in paint scoring, and had more bench points, more second chance points, more free throws, and shot better from the floor.

“We challenged our players to play a lot better than we played last night and they accepted the challenge of playing well,” Staley said. “We want to play our best basketball on both sides of the ball and I thought we had glimpses of it for long stretches in this game.”

South Carolina’s next game is Monday against UConn at noon eastern on ESPN.

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