March Madness: South Carolina opens title defense with dominant win over Norfolk State

After a 32-0 regular season, South Carolina entered NCAA women's tournament play as a heavy favorite to win the championship.

So far, so good. The Gamecocks opened their title defense with a dominant 72-40 win over Norfolk State on Friday. They didn't quite cover the whopping 50.5-point spread. But there's little from their first-round effort to suggest they're not prepared to defend their 2022 title.

The Gamecocks opened the game with a 20-7 first quarter. They held the Spartans to single digits again in the third with a 22-8 edge. Only a 16-14 fourth quarter after South Carolina let its foot off the gas kept the final score as close as 32 points.

Defense was the name of the game for the Gamecocks as they limited the Spartans to 26.2% shooting from the floor and a 4-for-12 (33.3%) effort from 3-point distance. South Carolina outrebounded Norfolk State 49-33 and forced 17 turnovers. The Gamecocks blocked 11 Spartans shots. Norfolk State blocked none. It was the type of effort expected from a 1-16 matchup featuring the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) reaches over Norfolk State forward Kierra Wheeler (50) in the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Aliyah Boston and South Carolina made easy work of Norfolk State. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

The Gamecocks don't come away from Friday's game with nothing to work on, though. They shot just 39.7% from the field and struggled from 3-point distance (5 of 17, 29.4%). Long-distance shooting is a weakness for a South Carolina team that shot just 31.5% from behind the arc during the season. A stronger opponent could make them pay for shooting more than 40% of their field-goal attempts from 3-point distance.

But the Gamecocks should be well-rested for Sunday's second-round game against No. 8 seed South Florida. Fourteen players saw the floor for South Carolina and only two — Aliyah Boston (23 minutes) and Brea Beal (20 minutes) — played 20 minutes or more. Nine players scored 5 points or more in a balanced offensive effort that saw Zia Cooke lead the way with 11 points and five rebounds despite shooting just 3 of 12 from the field. Boston added 7 points, nine rebounds and two blocks.