**Story by Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth**
The biggest question facing South Carolina entering the first round of the NCAA Tournament was how the Gamecocks would play without center and leading rebounder Alaina Coates.
First-round opponent UNC Asheville found out in a hurry Friday night. The Big South Tournament champions played South Carolina close for about six minutes at Colonial Life Arena. And then the Gamecocks, using a four-guard lineup, turned up the defensive pressure and intensity.
Within a matter of minutes, South Carolina had used its pressure defense and quickness to open up a double-digit lead and the route was on. The Gamecocks led by 26 points at halftime and pulled away for a 90-40 win.
"I think when you’re giving an already very talented team breakaway layups, loose ball turnovers, and second-chance points … then you’re going to be in some trouble," UNC Asheville head coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick said.
Without Coates, who averaged 12.9 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, the Gamecocks started four guards and forced 14 UNC Asheville turnovers. Shooting 56.9 percent from the field, South Carolina scored 23 points off turnovers and 24 fast-break points.
While forward and SEC Player of the Year A'Ja Wilson was outstanding as usual, scoring 18 points, it was the guards who stepped up. Allisha Gray had a double-double with a team-high 22 points and 12 rebounds and Bianca Cuevas-Moore added 18 points, mostly off fast-break layups.
Without one half of South Carolina's Twin Towers front court, the Gamecocks were a different team, and that might be bad news for opponents.
"I do like that it gives us options to play a little quicker than we normally play," head coach Dawn Staley said of the smaller, quicker lineup. "It gives us an opportunity from a defensive standpoint to fly around and jump the defense up and not be so reliant on our half-court defense, which we did a lot when we had our two bigs."
Without Coates, Staley has just two post players available — Wilson and freshman Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who contributed 14 points against UNC-A. Gray, a 6-0 junior guard, also came up big with 12 rebounds, seven on the offensive boards.
Without Coates, Staley is forced to go with a smaller lineup and protect her two post players.
"You got two post players and you want to make sure that you balance them out and make sure that they stay out of foul trouble," Staley said. "It all depends on who the opponents are and how we’re feeling, how we’re practicing, and where we can create our edge.”
The Gamecocks play eighth-seed Arizona State Sunday at 7 p.m., creating a matchup against two of the best defensive teams in the country. The Gamecocks allow just 56.4 points per game, while the Sun Devils give up just 57.4.
South Carolina's guard-heavy lineup and pressure defense should be a big factor again against Arizona State. And the Gamecocks have proven they can play without Coates. In the five games without the senior center, South Carolina has had five different players average double figures in points and has won those five games by an average of 22.4 points, two of them over nationally ranked opponents.
They will give Arizona State and the rest of the NCAA Tournament a different look than opponents have seen from the Gamecocks.
"That’s a luxury for us, to be able to change up our defense and play a different way," Staley said. "We’re at a place where teams will have to scout us differently; they have to prep for us differently than they have."
Kirkpatrick, who saw her team dismantled by South Carolina's pressure defense and balanced attack, believes the Gamecock will not only return to the Sweet 16 but can get back to the Final Four in Dallas.
"What are you going to do?" she said. "You can't go out and really D them up … If they can hit the long ball and continue to shoot 56 or 57 percent, then yes, I think they can.
"From what I see, the grit and character, if they are willing to go in and be physical and get offensive rebounds and they are shooting the ball well, then yes, … I would not be surprised to see them in Dallas whatsoever."