South Carolina women’s basketball players and coaches insist there’s nothing personal between them and Missouri.
“Coming in, everyone was like, ‘Ooh, what’s going to happen?’ ” South Carolina star A’ja Wilson said. “Everyone was sitting on the edge of their seats. ... We got the fans, we were excited. But at the same time we’ve got to take care of business. We’ve got to protect this house. This is us, this is what we do. And we treated it like any other game. It wasn’t a more hyped game or anything.”
But all the evidence on the court Sunday evening, which ended with a 64-54 USC win, pointed to two teams that at least don’t care and, at most, strongly dislike each other. That culminated in a second-quarter scuffle just before halftime in which starters shoved each other, benches cleared and two players were ejected.
The fight, scrum, brawl or altercation — the exact word depends on who you ask — began with controversial Missouri star Sophie Cunningham and South Carolina starters Alexis Jennings and Doniyah Cliney in the middle of it, but both head coaches made their voices heard. Wilson and fellow Gamecock Tyasha Harris also got involved.
In the end, two Missouri reserves, Jordan Roundtree and Nadia Green, were ejected for leaving the bench, and Cunningham and Cliney were assessed off-setting unsportsmanlike fouls.
For USC head coach Dawn Staley, the dust-up was directly connected to the two teams’ first meeting this season, a chippy 83-74 Missouri win on Jan. 7, as well as the emotional atmosphere inside Colonial Life Arena, where 13,433 screaming fans heckled the Tigers on basically every possession.
“I just think our players were on edge. They watched the film from last game,” Staley said. “They just don’t want to go into a game unprotected. So our first thing is just making sure everybody’s OK out there on the floor, both teams. Intensity was high, but there’s also players just trying to protect themselves on both sides of the ball.”
Staley did not go into who she thought was responsible for the fight, and her Missouri counterpart, Robin Pingeton, also declined to assign blame, saying she would have to watch a replay first.
“Typically that stuff happens so fast. And as a coach, you’re talking to your team, you’re talking to your bench, and then all of a sudden, you don’t have all the details,” Pingeton said. “We knew there was going to be a lot of emotion, and we talk to our players all the time: Just at no point do you leave the bench. I don’t know how far out they were on the court. I’ve got to go back and watch film and figure out exactly what happened before I really have a strong opinion on it, because I didn’t see everything and the way it all fell out.”
For the players out there on the court, the moment was intense, but both Wilson and Harris said they were less concerned with going after Mizzou as they were looking after their teammates.
“In that situation like that, I’m protecting my teammates. I’m going after my teammates, I’m going to be there for each and every last one of them,” Wilson said. “I don’t really care what the other team does. My thing is just, ‘Where is my team?’ ”
“Mostly just protecting my teammates and trying to break up stuff and just try not to get into any more trouble,” Harris added of her thoughts when the fight was happening.
Cunningham was not made available for interviews after the game, and Cliney was unavailable as she received treatment for an injury she sustained on the final play of the game.
Greg Hadley: @GregHadley9