South Carolina buries EMU in tourney opener

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- South Carolina can still rely on that suffocating defense whenever it gets in trouble.

The problem for the Gamecocks' next NCAA women's tournament opponent: Shutting down their emerging scorers.

Markeshia Grant had 12 points, Charenee Stephens finished with 11 and Ashley Bruner came off the bench to add 10, leading fifth-seeded South Carolina to an 80-48 rout over Eastern Michigan in Saturday's first-round tourney game.

"I like us in transition a lot, because we have some athletic post players, myself included," Stephens said. "At the same time I think we do really well in the half-court set."

It was a rare glimpse into how dominant the Gamecocks (24-9) can be when they combine a little offense with the nation's No. 4 defense.

South Carolina shot 53.3 percent from the field, made 5 of 19 from 3-point range and produced its highest point total of the season. The timing couldn't have been better for coach Dawn Staley's team.

On Monday night, the Gamecocks will try to add another line to their impressive resurgence by tying the school's single-season record for victories. They'll face fourth-seeded Purdue, the tourney host, which pulled away late for an 83-68 victory over 13th-seeded South Dakota State, the Summit League champions.

South Carolina has already ended a nine-year tourney drought and reached the SEC tourney finals.

Now they're on the verge of earning a ticket to the regional semifinals in Fresno, Calif. -- something that seemed more like a dream than reality when the season began.

"We've seen the big stage before," Stephens said. "The SEC tournament, it was a nice crowd. We haven't seen the NCAA tournament before, but we have the mindset that we can go out and play our game."

But even with a strong offense and a balanced attack, defense was the difference Saturday.

The Gamecocks locked up Tavelyn James, holding the nation's second-leading scorer to just 11 points, 13 below her average. It was James' second-lowest total of the season, and the Eagles' incredible 5-foot-7 guard missed all three of her 3-point attempts.

James leaves the college game with 2,461 career points, the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year award, the league tourney's most outstanding player award and one tough but unforgettable NCAA tourney appearance.

"Shots weren't falling today," she said. "It wasn't like we didn't get any shots up, we just couldn't hit them."

Paige Redditt led Eastern Michigan with 14 points, giving her 1,001 in her career, while Natachia Watkins finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds.

Nothing went right for the MAC champs, who had won 11 of their previous 12 games. They shot just 26.7 percent from the field, turned the ball over 17 times, finished with their lowest point total of the season and never got close after halftime.

Clearly, it wasn't how the 12th-seeded Eagles hoped to end the season.

"I think it would have opened up things a lot more for some of our other players," Eastern Michigan coach AnnMarie Gilbert said. "We missed a lot of easy baskets inside; they need to make those baskets to free Tavelyn up a little bit. We didn't make those, and Tavelyn didn't make hers on the outside, which made for a terrible combination."

The game sure didn't start that way.

Staley, who led Virginia to three Final Four appearances more than two decades ago, said she expected her players to have some early jitters.

They did, and Eastern Michigan took advantage, scoring six straight points to take a 14-8 lead less than six minutes into the game against a defense that was allowing only 50.5 points a game.

But when the Gamecocks settled down, they reverted to form. South Carolina scored the next eight points to take the lead, closing the half on a 14-2 run to make it 39-23.

South Carolina put it away early in the second half, using a 9-3 spurt to take a 48-26 lead with 18:05 to play and extended the margin to as much as 36.

The Eagles spent the rest of the game futilely trying to catch up from deficits of mostly 25 or more points against a defense that wasn't going to crack.

"She (James) was a highlight of ours, but we also highlight the point guard," Staley said. "We feel like the point guard is the key to engineering their offense and their defense. We wanted to cut the head off. We call it cutting the head off and the rest will fall."