CHARLOTTE — Dawn Staley is feeling a whole lot better about her team than she was two weeks ago.
South Carolina returned to playing with the swagger and defensive intensity that she's come accustomed to seeing in her 11 seasons as the Gamecocks coach.
Staley stressed ball pressure and denying 3-point opportunities heading into the NCAA Tournament — and her team listened well.
Te'a Cooper scored 13 points, Alexis Jennings added 12 points and nine rebounds, and fourth-seeded South Carolina shook off a sluggish start to pull away from No. 13 seed Belmont 74-52 on Friday in the opening round of the women's NCAA Tournament.
Tyasha Harris chipped in with 12 points and six assists and Doniyah Cliney added 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting for the Gamecocks, who won in their first game since getting upset by Arkansas in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"We feel like we put in the work and we feel good about where we are," Staley said. "Hopefully we can continue dictating energy and be flying around out there."
Added Jennings : "We knew we had to raise our defensive presence."
It took South Carolina a quarter to find its groove.
The Gamecocks led only 16-13 after 10 minutes, but they stepped up the defensive pressure, denying passes and causing shot clock violations while limiting the Bruins to three points in the second quarter.
"Their motto is they want to turn their defense into offense — and they did that today," said Belmont guard Darby Maggard.
Meanwhile, Staley made a concerted effort on the offensive end to push the ball inside to Jennings and Victaria Saxton in the second quarter, taking advantage of South Carolina's size mismatch and building a 29-16 halftime lead.
"That was part of the game plan," Jennings said. "I feel like I am at my best when I have my two feet in the paint."
South Carolina came out hot in the third quarter, extending its offense to the perimeter and making 8 of its first 11 shots from the field — including three 3-pointers — to build a 21-point lead. Cliney essentially put the game away in the closing seconds of the third quarter, coming up with a steal and going the length of the floor to give the Gamecocks a 60-36 lead.
Maggard had 13 points and Conley Chinn had 10 for Belmont (26-7).
Belmont: The Bruins hung tough for one quarter but struggled with South Carolina's overall size. They're still looking for their first NCAA Tournament win, but it's clear a winning atmosphere has been established after four straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks finally started to look like the Gamecocks of old in the second and third quarter, regaining some of the swagger they lost in the SEC Tournament. Now it will be interesting to see if that carries over to the second round, where the competition is tougher.
Junior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan did not play in the first half and senior Bianca Cuevas-Moore did not play at all for South Carolina.
Staley wouldn't comment on why the players were disciplined, only to say "obviously something happened but I am just not going to divulge that information."
However, it is considered an isolated incident and both players are expected to be available for the team's second round game.
Belmont coach Bart Brooks praised the play of seniors Maggard and Jenny Roy, who helped the Bruins reach the NCAA Tournament four straight seasons. Both women were in tears as they sat beside their coach at the podium after the game.
"They walked in with a dream to play in the NCAA Tournament," Brooks said. "That was a goal. And now the program has an expectation to play in the tournament every year. The 40 minutes of basketball will never define these women."
Said Maggard: "Most people can only dream about playing in the NCAA Tournament four times."
CHANGE OF VENUE
The game was played at Halton Arena on the campus of UNC Charlotte — about 90 minutes from South Carolina's home floor. South Carolina is hosting the first two rounds of the men's tournament, prompting the change in venue.
South Carolina will face winner No. 5 Florida State, which held off Bucknell.
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