COLUMBIA, S.C. - Zia Cooke was so excited to get to play again that she could barely sleep. She and her teammates with top-ranked South Carolina picked up where they left off in a runaway victory to start the fragile season.
Victaria Saxton had 19 points and 12 rebounds and Cooke scored 18 points as the Gamecocks overwhelmed Charleston 119-38 on Wednesday for their 27th straight win.
Cooke was worried her team might not get to play at all as the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact college sports as it did last spring, when SEC champion South Carolina missed out on a chance at a national title.
’'I had huge worries about that,’' she said.
The Gamecocks had no worries about their basketball, though.
’'Everybody’s growing, so it’s going to get better and better each year,’' Cooke said. ’'We’ve got so much in store, I’m not going to give away everything we’ve got.’'
South Carolina had seven players score in double figures and four had double-doubles, including Aliyah Boston with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
After last season’s NCAA Tournament was canceled, this team’s goal is simple - finish what it couldn’t last spring.
’'It felt really great to get back on the court. We were real excited to get back and playing because COVID messed things up for everybody, not only us,’' Saxton said.
It was the same quick, offensive-minded Gamecocks.
Destanni Henderson made a layup 5 seconds into the game and the South Carolina never looked back. Taylor Williams got the Cougars’ first point with a foul shot. After the team missed its first 17 shots, Williams’ jumper made it 24-5 with 1:37 left in the opening quarter.
They soon topped their best-ever showing under Staley, accomplished last year in a 112-32 victory over SC Upstate.
Williams led Charleston with nine points.
Cougars coach Robin Harmony said she gave minutes to young players to help them learn how to handle big situations.
’'It’s just a matter of everybody watching and learning and saying, `I’m going to change. I’m going to make this different,’'' Harmony said.
There was an eerie atmosphere with only 3,500 people permitted inside 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena.
South Carolina led the NCAA in average attendance for women’s hoops last year, the powerhouse program drawing 12,218 fans a game. The school had sellouts against UConn and Texas A&M and had the top-three most attended games of last season.
Instead of fans, there were smiling cutouts spaced around the arena and the fans who were there sat far apart.
’'Weird is probably right on’' about the atmosphere, Staley said. ’'It’s hard after you build something.’'
The benches were spaced out, too, with individual chairs for coaches and players at least 6 feet away from each other.
Artificial crowd noise made it sound fuller than it was. South Carolina does not play at home again until Dec. 3, when it faces No. 8 North Carolina State.
KEY STAT The Gamecocks dominated the glass Wednesday afternoon with 73 rebounds compared to Charleston’s 28. Both the 73 total and the +45 advantage are records for Staley-era Carolina teams. NOTABLES
- Today’s 119 points mark the highest point total for a Staley-coached Carolina team, topping the 111 points scored against Savannah State on 12/14/14. The 119 total is also a new record for points scored in Colonial Life Arena.
- The Gamecocks pulled down 73 rebounds, the most for any Staley coached squad. The +45 rebounding advantage (73-28) is also a record for Carolina teams under Staley.
- Seven Gamecocks scored in double figures. Last season, seven games saw six Gamecocks reach the mark.
- Four Gamecocks finished with double-doubles, a first in program history. Junior Victaria Saxton led the group with a team-high 19 points and 12 rebounds for the second double-double of her career.
- Sophomore Aliyah Boston picked up right where she ended her National Freshman of the Year season to earn her 14th career double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
- Senior LeLe Grissett caught fire early with 11 first-half points on her way to a 13-point 10 rebound double-double, the second time she’s tallied a double-double in her career.
- Sophomore Laeticia Amihere notched the first double-double of her career with 11 points and 11 rebounds, giving her a new career high in rebounds.
- Freshman Eniya Russell had a strong Carolina debut pouring in 14 points and pulling down four rebounds.