**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina's quest to return to the Sweet 16 and make another run at the Final Four got off to a fast start Friday night as the No. 1-seeded Gamecocks routed No. 16 UNC-Asheville, 90-40, in their first-round game at Colonial Life Arena.
Junior guard Allisha Gray led South Carolina with 22 points and 12 rebounds, while SEC Player of the Year A'Ja Wilson and guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore contributed 18 each. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan came off the bench to contribute 14.
UNC-Asheville played South Carolina close in the first few minutes, but the Gamecocks blew it open in the second quarter with pressure defense and fast-break points. With Allisha Gray dominating the boards and Cuevas-Moore beating the Bulldogs down the floor for layup after layup, they opened up a big lead and dominated in nearly every phase of the game. South Carolina out-rebounded UNC-A 45-26 and scored 24 points off turnovers and 24 on second-chance points.
"I thought our players really locked into the game plan and really executed on both sides of the ball," head coach Dawn Staley said.
South Carolina's pressure defense in the second quarter was the difference in the game, allowing the Gamecocks to pull away and open up a 48-22 halftime lead.
With senior center and leading rebounder Alaina Coates out with an ankle injury, Staley started three guards and controlled the pace of the game.
"I just thought we needed to change how we were playing," Staley said. "We needed to create some offense from our defense and the best way to do that is to speed the game up. We had a smaller lineup and we were able to get out and play fast."
The fast tempo forced UNC-A into turnover after turnover and played into South Carolina's hands. The Bulldogs turned the ball over 14 times to just five for South Carolina.
"Once they saw they could take the ball from us, they definitely stepped up (the pressure)," UNC-A guard Khaila Webb said.
"Once we get in the flow of the game, we take control and it's pretty much our game," Gray said.
A big key was the play of Gray, who scored 10 points in the first quarter and dominated the boards. Of her 12 rebounds, seven came on the offensive end. With Coates out, that was big.
"We have been working on rebounding all week. I just did what I was supposed to do," Gray said.
UNC-A got off to a quick start, scoring the first four points of the game, but Gray and Wilson quickly took control to put the Gamecocks ahead 13-11 at the first break. Gray had a great first quarter, scoring 10 points and grabbing five rebounds to get SC off to a great start and put the Gamecocks up 23-15.
Bianca Cuevas-Moore gave the Gamecocks a big lift in the second, hitting a three to start the quarter and adding two layups off turnovers. She had 12 points in the quarter as SC raced out to a 36-17 lead.
The Gamecocks led 48-22 at the half and then blew the game wide open with a 14-1 run to the start the second half. Gray and Wilson started the scoring, and then Cuevas-Moore added three straight fast-break layups to ignite the route. By the end of the third quarter, it was over as the Gamecocks led 70-28.
"Obviously, South Carolina was very focused," UNC-A head coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick said. "When you are giving an already very talented team fast break layups and second-chance points, things are not going to go well.
"They are a phenomenal team. It was a privilege to play them."