Two undefeated teams, two powerhouse coaches, two Player of the Year candidates: Sunday’s matchup between No. 1 South Carolina and No. 3 LSU has it all. It’s also the most-anticipated contest of the regular season.
Just Women’s Sports breaks down the top matchups to watch in the contest, airing on ESPN Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.
Not only are Boston and Reese the leading candidates for SEC Player of the Year, they are also in contention for National Player of the Year. On Sunday, we will get to see the two star post players go head to head in the paint. By the numbers, Reese is having a better season, but they are each averaging a double-double. Reese is averaging 23.5 points, 15.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, while Boston puts up 13.3 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks per contest.
The point discrepancy, however, isn’t necessarily an indication that Reese is the better player. Instead, it’s a reflection of each team’s makeup.
The Gamecocks are the country’s most balanced squad, with 12 players who score at least four points per game. They are so deep that only two players — Boston and Zia Cooke — average double-digit scoring. South Carolina’s strength is in its plethora of talent, and Boston knows that her team wins when everyone contributes. Instead of imposing her will and trying to score over double teams, Boston shares the wealth.
Like Boston, Reese is doing what her team needs her to do in order to win. LSU gets contributions from its bench, but the bulk of its offense comes from the starting five, and particularly from Reese. In all but six games this season, the sophomore has been LSU’s leading scorer, and that’s the Tigers’ recipe for success. Reese needs to be the most dominant player on the floor for LSU to have its best chance at victory.
There is also a minutes difference to take into account, as Reese plays 33.1 per contest and Boston plays 25.2 minutes per game.
The two have one head-to-head matchup recorded. Last season, when Reese was at Maryland, the two faced off in a 66-59 South Carolina win. All eyes were on Boston as she neared a triple-double with 16 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocks, but Reese was dominant as well with 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Because of the teams’ varying styles of play, the game likely won’t come down solely to who gets the better of this matchup, but there are bragging rights in play. Plus, the more dominant player will almost certainly lock up SEC Player of the Year.
These two came onto the head coaching scene in the same year (2000), with Mulkey taking over at Baylor and Staley starting at Temple. Mulkey’s combined record at Baylor and LSU is 678-110 for an 86 percent win rate, while Staley’s is 559-185 (75% win rate). Mulkey has three NCAA championships and Staley has two. They’ve both led their teams to four Final Fours. You get the picture: These are two dominant coaches.
But their approaches to this particular season have been drastically different. In their quest for a repeat title, the Gamecocks have played a challenging schedule, taking on teams like Maryland, Stanford, UCLA and UConn. Meanwhile, LSU’s only ranked opponent up until this point was Arkansas, a team that South Carolina also beat handedly.
Staley came into the season knowing exactly what she had in the defending champions, but Mulkey said she didn’t know Reese would be transferring in and therefore couldn’t commit to a difficult schedule. The coach has repeatedly had to answer to LSU’s weak slate of games.
Because of the differences in strength of schedule, a win will do a lot more for the Tigers than it will for the Gamecocks. Unless something unexpected happens during the rest of the season, South Carolina is a lock for a No. 1 seed come March. A win over LSU strengthens the team’s resume, but a loss doesn’t necessarily hurt it.
But for the Tigers, Sunday is their chance to prove themselves. A win validates their record despite the strength of schedule, and it helps their case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, a loss could prove critics right and seriously impact their seeding.
The post battle is the main attraction in this matchup, but let’s not forget about the guards. Morris and Cooke are two experienced players who have made huge impacts for their respective teams this season.
Cooke is leading South Carolina in scoring with 14.8 points per game, while also providing a crucial outside presence for a team known for dominating the paint. She’s South Carolina’s top 3-point shooter, with 42 makes this season at a 35.6 percent clip.
Morris is averaging 14 points per game, second on the team behind Reese, while serving as LSU’s point guard and predominant playmaker. Everything starts with Morris, who dishes out 4.5 assists per contest.
In games like this, stars generally do what is expected of them. So the victor has to get contributions elsewhere. That has been the formula all season for South Carolina, who average 40 bench points per contest. The duo of Raven Johnson (3.4 assists per game) and Kamilla Cardoso (9.7 points, 8.2 rebounds per game) have been particularly effective, as the two former AAU teammates have a keen understanding of each other’s games.
Meanwhile, the Tigers are going to need to slow down South Carolina’s overall production. Teams have had relative success against the Gamecocks by packing the paint and forcing the Gamecocks to be shooters. With Reese on the inside, that could be the plan of attack for LSU as well. On offense, they will also need someone outside of Reese and Morris to step up. Third leading scorer and dynamic freshman Flau’jae Johnson or sophomore Kateri Poole, who has yet to have a big game, could both be difference-makers.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.