CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Ashlyn Watkins stole the ball at half court and knew exactly what she’d do next, throwing down a right-handed dunk that brought her teammates on No. 1 South Carolina to their feet in celebration.
No big deal, said the 6-foot-3, five-star freshman. After all, Watkins did it all the time in high school.
“She told us to chill,” said Gamecocks senior Zia Cooke, who had 15 points to lead the team in an 85-31 win over rival Clemson on Thursday night.
Watkins one-armed jam with 3:26 to play was the capper to a dominant showing by the defending national champions.
It also stunned coach Dawn Staley, who thought Watkins was simply going to roll it over the rim and in as part of her career-best 14 points.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Staley said.
Her Gamecocks (3-0) were most impressive throughout. They used a 16-2 run in the first quarter to take control and used smothering defense and accurate shooting to win their 12th straight over the Tigers (3-1).
Watkins said to dunk in her third college game was “amazing.”
Cooke, among the players jumping off the bench, said her mind was blown by Watkins’ play.
“Do you even know what you did?” Cooke kept asking her.
Cooke came up slowly early in the game after getting hit by someone’s knee in her thigh. But after a few minutes with a muscle-loosening device on her left thigh, re-entered and continued her perfect half (she was 4 of 4) as she drained a 3-pointer right before the buzzer to end the first quarter.
Aliyah Boston added 12 points and six rebounds for the Gamecocks.
Clemson had no answers for the Gamecocks, who shot 64% in the first 20 minutes while holding their opponent to 7 of 27 from the field to lead 46-16 at the break.
The highlight for Clemson came early — very early — when Brie Perpignan’s layup put the Tigers up 5-2 less than two minutes in. South Carolina then took off on its 16-2 run, making seven straight shots to take control.
Things will get a lot tougher for South Carolina next time out when it heads to No. 2 Stanford on Sunday in an early season showdown.
South Carolina, which relies more on smothering defense than accurate outside shooting, had both in this one. The Gamecocks shot 68% the first 20 minutes and made all five of their 3-pointers.
Even Victaria Saxton, the 6-foot-2 forward known for her inside game, joined in the shooting party with her first collegiate 3-pointer in three career attempts just before halftime for a 30-point lead.
Cooke, Boston, Bree Beal and Saxton, all starters on last year’s NCAA title winners, sat out the final quarter with the game well in hand.
Clemson had won its first three games, shooting nearly 48% from the field and averaging 71 points a game.
But the Tigers went cold and missed 16 of their 18 second-quarter attempts. Clemson finished with the fewest points in a game in coach Amanda Butler’s five seasons.
Butler said her team’s shot selection early on put them in a hole the Tigers couldn’t dig out from. “We played the game entirely on their terms,” she said.
THE BIG PICTURE
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have come out with a fire so far this season, winning all three games including an 81-56 victory at then-No. 11 Maryland last week, by an average winning margin of 54 points. They’ll need that again if they hope to get past Stanford, which lost to the Gamecocks 65-61 a season ago.
Clemson: The Tigers have lost all four games with rival South Carolina, (the teams didn’t play during the COVID-19 season of 2020-21), by an average margin of 33 points. Clemson will be up against it in the powerhouse ACC this season. The Tigers were picked 12th in the conference’s preseason poll.
TURNING IT OVER
Staley was not pleased with South Carolina’s 20 turnovers, including two apiece from starters in Beal, Boston and Cooke. Staley said Clemson used pressure that the Gamecocks had trouble handling.
South Carolina: At Stanford on Sunday in a No. 1 vs. 2 matchup.
Clemson: Plays Kansas State on Thursday night at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll