COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)Zia Cooke scored a season-high 20 points and No. 1 South Carolina, boosted by coach Dawn Staley’s early substitutions, beat Liberty 88-39 on Sunday.
The Gamecocks (9-0) returned from a week-long break for exams.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said she wasn’t disappointed with starters Cooke, Aliyah Boston, Brea Beal, Victaria Saxton and Kierra Fletcher – when she subbed them out in opening quarter. All but Fletcher were starters in the Gamecocks’ run to the national title last season.
It was just a way, she explained, for her to evaluate the combination of Raven Johnson, Kamilla Cardoso, Laeticia Amihere, Talaysia Cooper and Bree Hall, part of her team’s deep, talented roster.
”We’ve been working that unit all week, trying to get them to be an impressive unit for us. It wasn’t pretty, but I wanted to see what they looked like in a game situation,” Staley said. ”It wasn’t bad. I liked the energy, I liked the effort. We just got to know how to transition out of it.”
The second unit’s play broke the malaise against Liberty (3-5) as the Gamecocks immediately padded their margin with an 11-4 run on the way to a 42-22 halftime lead.
The starting lineup returned in the second half and kept up the pressure. The Flames were held to six points in the third quarter as the Gamecocks’ lead increased to 35.
Boston, the reigning AP Player of the Year, shrugged off the line change that Staley ordered when the Gamecocks were up just 10-7.
”It made us chuckle,” Boston said. ”She wanted to substitute, to get a different kind of defense going.”
Reserve forward Sania Feagin added a career-high 14 points for the Gamecocks.
Mya Berkman led Liberty (3-5) with 17 points.
Flames coach Carey Green said he’s challenging his players with a stretch of games away from home that included defending national champions.
”Our challenge is being consistent, and that’s a simple word that covers a lot of areas,” Green said. ”Just learning that, we need to understand the game is not a powder-puff game. It’s a physical game.”
Liberty: The Flames are seeing how tough they are with a rough stretch of playing eight of nine games away from home. Liberty’s last home game was Nov. 17 and the only one between then and Jan. 5 comes Thursday night against NCAA Division II Limestone.
South Carolina: After a lengthy exam break, the Gamecocks wanted to get back in rhythm. The Gamecocks were able to again show off their incredibly deep bench.
Boston celebrated her 21st birthday on Sunday. Staley asked the crowd to stick around after the postgame alma mater to sing ”Happy Birthday,” which it cheerfully did.
”You like that birthday?” Staley asked the probable No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft. ”We can do that next year, if you come back.”
The Gamecocks, a unanimous No. 1 in the polls for the past two weeks, are sure to stay that way when the new polls are released on Dec. 12.
They have been ranked first for the past 26 consecutive weeks and and this week, will mark their 10-year anniversary of being in every Top 25 poll since Dec. 12, 2012.
Liberty returns home to face NCAA Division II opponent Limestone on Thursday night.
South Carolina goes plays South Dakota State in Sioux Falls, less than a hour’s drive from the Jackrabbits’ campus on Thursday night.
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25