The No. 5 seed UNC women’s basketball team will face No. 1 seed South Carolina in the Greensboro Coliseum Complex on Friday night for a Sweet 16 border battle.
One Carolina team, the Gamecocks, is a seasoned group hungry for redemption. South Carolina fell to Stanford in last year’s Final Four. This season, the team never surrendered its top spot in the AP Top-25 rankings and is the heavy favorite to win the NCAA Tournament.
The other Carolina team, the Tar Heels, is a young, spry squad eager for another chance to prove themselves. The Tar Heels weren’t in the AP Top 20 until early January. And the last time UNC was in the Sweet 16, four of its current starters weren’t even in high school.
North Carolina will face its most difficult test of the season against a team that’s looked unbeatable all year. Here’s a breakdown of South Carolina’s three core veterans.
Guard Destanni Henderson
South Carolina’s offense starts with first-team All-SEC guard Destanni Henderson.
Though Henderson is a top three scorer for the Gamecocks, her forte is facilitating. She’s had 14 games this season with at least five assists, and still dished a combined 12 assists in South Carolina’s sole losses to Missouri and Kentucky. Her 1.9 assist/turnover ratio makes her one of the SEC’s top floor generals.
Not to be outdone from behind the arc, Henderson has made the most 3-pointers on the team, shooting at an efficient 38.6 percent clip.
Guard Zia Cooke
Shifty but streaky, Zia Cooke has consistently taken the most 3-pointers for the Gamecocks throughout her entire collegiate career.
This season, she’s gone 28.8 percent from downtown. While not as formidable of a sharpshooting threat as Henderson, the second-team All-SEC guard’s confidence is evident, and she won’t hesitate to take a three if left open. In the madness of March, each triple can serve as a potential spark for a scoring run — no matter how many misses it took to get there.
Cooke’s also long overdue for a breakout offensive performance, having averaged 7.5 points over the last seven games. Look for UNC sophomore guard Deja Kelly to try and keep pace with Cooke in the backcourt.
Forward Aliyah Boston
Teams have tried virtually everything on SEC Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.
They’ve tried fouling, double-teaming, one-on-one coverage. Nothing has seemed to work.
Boston is a 76.9 percent free throw shooter. She’s scored double digits in each of the past 31 games, shooting at least 50 percent from the field in 21 of those performances.
And what happened when the country’s leading shot-blocker, Tennessee center Tamari Key, was tasked with guarding Boston? Key finished with a monstrous 10 blocks, but Boston still scored 16 points on no free throw attempts in 28 minutes of playing time.
Suffice it to say, no defender can truly keep pace with the 6-foot-5 interior threat — except perhaps Boston herself. After all, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award has gone to Boston for three consecutive seasons.
The challenge for UNC head coach Courtney Banghart isn’t to completely shut down Boston, as the Tar Heels can only hope to contain her. It’s more about how much attention Boston’s post presence commands. Over-helping down low on defense opens up opportunities for South Carolina’s other lethal scoring options, namely Cooke and Henderson.
North Carolina may see initial success with a zone defense, giving sophomore forward Anya Poole an extra body to defend Boston’s seemingly unstoppable drop step.
And if the Gamecocks stay true to their mediocre 3-point shooting — they sit in the middle of the SEC at 31.6 percent — then UNC can continue to reap the benefits of a zone with minimal drawbacks, giving the Tar Heels a fighting chance for an upset.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.