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At deep South Carolina, ‘USC’ means ultimate supporting cast

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Semifinal-Louisville vs South Carolina

Apr 1, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks guard Brea Beal (12) reacts on the court during the second half in the Final Four semifinals of the women’s college basketball NCAA Tournament at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- Brea Beal has made a habit - a career, actually - of relentlessly guarding the best backcourt player for South Carolina’s opponent and making sure her night is full of frustration.

Her effectiveness is easy enough to see, such as in the semifinal victory over Louisville when the 6-foot-1 junior smothered Cardinals star Hailey Van Lith. Beal can usually hear when she’s the most effective, because the trash-talking frequently follows.

“I just love to keep the ball rolling and not really feed into that, but I definitely do feel it a lot,” said Beal, who held Van Lith to nine points with four turnovers after she hit the 20-point mark in each of Louisville’s first four tournament games.

South Carolina plays Connecticut at Target Center on Sunday night for the national championship. The Gamecocks (34-2) have given up an average of less than 45 points over their first five games in this NCAA Tournament, managing to take one of the nation’s best defenses up another notch.

Beal is their catalyst on that end of the court, regularly taking on a prolific scorer and making her work hard for anything she gets.

“She came in with so much intensity defensively, and it just always stuck with her,” teammate Destanni Henderson said.

Only eight out of 36 times this season has Beal allowed her primary defensive assignment to hit her scoring average. That includes UConn’s Christyn Williams, who had 10 points in their matchup in the Bahamas on Nov. 22.

Midway through her freshman year, the native of Rock Island, Illinois, began to feel her role of the defensive ace as a natural one.

“Coach was like, `You’re good at this. Let’s keep doing this,”’ Beal said, later adding: “Coming out of high school I was so used to all the little hardware, but as time went on it was bigger than that. I realize it was bigger than that now. You’re playing for something, for the community, for the team, for the coaches.”

South Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, has the enviable benefit of both the AP National Player of the Year, Aliyah Boston, and one of the deepest teams in the field. Coach Dawn Staley believes in bench minutes, giving her starters ample rest. The lineup around Boston, too, gives the Gamecocks a wealth of options and skills to throw at the Huskies.

USC is the acronym for the University of South Carolina, but it ought to stand for “ultimate supporting cast.”

Beal matched her season high with 12 points against Louisville. Victaria Saxton, who helps Boston patrol the glass and the paint, totaled 27 points and 28 rebounds over the past three games. Henderson is 5 for 8 from 3-point range over the past two games. Zia Cooke is averaging 10.7 points per game this season.

“Everybody on the team can be dominating,” said Henderson, the sharpshooting senior guard. “I feel like our depth is very interesting, because not a lot of teams have that and a lot of teams have to play their starting five for 40 minutes.”

Beal will likely follow Williams for most of the night, with more of a team effort to contain Huskies star Paige Bueckers - who won the Player of the Year award in 2021 before missing nearly three months of this season to a knee injury.

Bueckers had 19 points and seven assists against the Gamecocks earlier this season. While she’s still been rounding back into form after the rehab, occasionally striking a nerve with a hard landing on the court and grimacing from the discomfort, there’s no way that South Carolina will get anything but the best of Bueckers in the title game in her hometown.

“When it comes to someone like Paige, no matter what she’s going to go out there and the adrenaline is going to shield her from that,” Beal said. “I definitely think we’re going to get her best game that she’s played all season for sure.”