AP Top 25 women's basketball poll: South Carolina keeps on flexing despite offseason turnover

South Carolina guard Bree Hall (23) and forward Ashlyn Watkins (2) celebrate as LSU guard Aneesah Morrow (24) walks down court in the final moments of the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. South Carolina won 76-70. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
The Gamecocks passed a tough test against LSU, showing Dawn Staley has more than enough talent on her roster to win it all. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The ACC and Pac-12 remain two of the toughest conferences to make sense of and the standings shifted again this week, but it was the SEC and a rivalry that took center stage.

South Carolina solidified its 12th week atop the Associated Press Top 25 poll with a 76-70 win over reigning champion LSU on Thursday night. It was a highly anticipated matchup of the two most recent national champions and the numbers proved it.

The matchup on ESPN peaked at 2.1 million and averaged 1.56 million, beating out the night’s NBA numbers. The Boston Celtics’ 143-110 win over the Miami Heat was the second-highest-rated game of the night, averaging 1.39 million.

South Carolina-LSU was also the second-highest rated women’s basketball game of the season after Ohio State’s upset over Iowa averaged 1.93 million and peaked at 3.1 million the week prior on NBC. That game is the most-watched regular season women’s game on any network since 2010.

Days later, Notre Dame upset Connecticut in their rivalry meeting on FOX prime time on Sunday. The winners of those contests, along with Oregon State’s weekend of ranked wins, lead the takeaways for this week’s AP ballot.

[See complete Week 13 Women's Basketball AP Poll here.]

Don’t call it a ‘reload’

South Carolina’s success has been attributed to head coach Dawn Staley reloading, but that’s not quite fair to the players who waited and learned behind the “Freshies” class that led the Gamecocks to three Final Fours.

Staley doesn’t reload. No, she’s always loading to avoid sharp drop-offs. It’s why the Gamecocks (19-0, 7-0 SEC) are a near-lock for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament even after losing all five starters and a top reserve.

The juxtaposition of LSU, which relies heavily on transfers, and South Carolina on Thursday night provided one big-picture takeaway on college hoops.

Depth, chemistry and quality experience are the keys. All of them combined are dangerous to anyone standing in the way. And South Carolina has all of them.

Teams in the postseason for the first time (whether collegiate or professional) often talk about the newness of the moment. It can be jarring and put players on their heels instead of in attack mode. Few teams roll through their first tournament to win a title. Instead, they come back a few years later more prepared. That’s when they win it all.

Experience also applies to big moments, such as trailing in a hostile environment on the road. Four of the five South Carolina starters learned from the success above them, much like the national team Staley played for and coached to gold medals.

Kamilla Cardoso, who won ACC Freshman of the Year playing for Syracuse, transferred to South Carolina when the Freshies were juniors — the same year as the freshman campaigns of Bree Hall and Raven Johnson, both starters, and Sania Feagin. Some expected their class to rival the Freshies of 2019 (Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere, Brea Beal). Forward Chloe Kitts enrolled early in January 2023 to join freshman Ashlyn Watkins.

None of them started until this season, and there’s certainly a level of inexperience in that. But they learned for one or two seasons how to refine their play, how to handle those big moments, how to rally back and how to win individual possessions. This group is used to playing in games against the best over their careers, even if it wasn’t from first tip.

They played top programs Stanford, UCLA and UConn last season in non-conference play. This year, they’ve played Utah and will play UConn again next month. Members of this group have won in the Final Four and lost in the Final Four.

The only “reload” is Te-Hina Paopao, a transfer from Oregon who is having the best season of her career, hitting 53% of her 3s on a team not historically strong behind the arc. Credit to Staley for filling a hole knowing it wouldn't be as easy to play through the post as much as they did with Boston.

As for depth, she has enough to sit freshmen MiLaysia Fulwiley and Watkins if they don’t meet the moment and let them settle in. She can play mismatches and the hot hand. And it’s how she continues to load the program for future seasons.

How Notre Dame keeps momentum without Miles

Notre Dame (15-4, 5-3 ACC) earned its signature win, then dropped a bombshell.

The program confirmed that All-American point guard Olivia Miles will not play this season after injuring her knee in the regular season finale last year. Miles said ahead of the season she might take a redshirt and as the ACC schedule pounded on, it seemed more likely. But nothing was certain and their season hinged on the “if Miles returns” qualifier.

Without Miles, the Fighting Irish will continue to rely on freshman guard Hannah Hidalgo and junior guard Sonia Citron, who missed December with an injury. They’ll need more consistent offense from senior forward Maddy Westbeld, whose 23 points against UConn was one off a season-high. She was 3-of-7 from 3-point range, season-highs on both makes and attempts.

Hidalgo is solidly a leading contender for National Freshman of the Year, averaging 24.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 5.1 steals per game. The 5-foot-6 guard cemented herself in Notre Dame-UConn rivalry lore with 34 points (a record for an Irish freshman), 10 rebounds and six assists.

She’s quick off the bounce and blew by UConn defenders on multiple occasions with easy looks down the lane. That’s a nod to her talents, but also the Huskies’ defensive issues that have been masked in Big East play.

Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey called the win a “light in the tunnel to things we’ve been working on” and praised the team’s poise in withstanding a run and punching back with their own against a good team.

The ACC is a tough, unpredictable conference, but Notre Dame showed it will be a tough out come tournament time. And with Miles officially ruled out this season, the Irish will be an even tougher out next season with their dangerous guard trio.

STORRS, CT - JANUARY 27: Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Maddy Westbeld (21) defended by UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) during the women's college basketball game between Notre Dame Fighting Irish and UConn Huskies on January 27, 2024, at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Notre Dame forward Maddy Westbeld finished with 23 points and five rebounds against UConn on Saturday. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Oregon State’s rise rests on defense

Oregon State (17-3, 6-3 Pac-12) watched Stanford celebrate Tara VanDerveer’s record win a week ago and answered with two major program wins of their own.

The Beavers are peaking at a good time, sweeping ranked opponents in then-No. 3 Colorado, 68-62, and then-No. 16 Utah, 91-66, at home. Defense has been their calling card. They rank third in the Pac-12 in points allowed (58.7) and first in opponents’ field goal percentage (34.5%). Those marks rank 44th and third in the nation, respectively.

Oregon State is one of the few teams to keep Colorado (17-3, 7-2) below 70 points, a near sure-fire way to upset the Buffaloes. The defense kept the Buffs about 12 points below their average, and Utah (15-6, 5-4) nearly 20 below its average.

They rarely allow more than a player or two to pack the points column. Utah National Player of the Year contender Alissa Pili (28 points) was the only double-digit scorer through three quarters of a 78-42 deficit. Colorado’s Jaylyn Sherrod was the only player to make more than three buckets.

Stanford’s Kiki Iriafen scored 36 on 16 field goals in the Cardinal's win over the Beavers, but contributions from Talana Lepolo (14 points) and Brooke Demetre (10 points) were key.

The weekend emergence of Oregon State freshman guard Donovyn Hunter around leading scorers Raegan Beers (18.8 ppg) and Talia von Oelhoffen (10.6 pgp) helped the breakthrough. Hunter had a total of 96 points heading into the weekend (5 ppg) and exploded for 16 (7-of-14) against Colorado and 17 (7-of-9) against Utah. She added 10 assists against Utah.

The Beavers went undefeated through their lackluster non-conference schedule with the only real notable result a 63-56 win over Villanova. They’re the real deal now, having jumped Utah (15-5, 5-3) and USC (14-3, 4-3) in the Pac-12 standings.

Yahoo's AP ballot

1. South Carolina (19-0)
2. NC State (18-2)
3. Colorado (17-3)
4. Iowa (19-2)
5. Kansas State (20-1)
6. Stanford (19-2)
7. UCLA (16-3)
8. Ohio State (17-3)
9. LSU (18-3)
10. Notre Dame (15-4)
11. UConn (17-4)
12. Baylor (16-3)
13. Texas (19-3)
14. Utah (15-6)
15. Virginia Tech (16-4)
16. USC (14-4)
17. Indiana (17-2)
18. Louisville (18-3)
19. Gonzaga (20-2)
20. North Carolina (15-6)
21. Syracuse (17-3)
22. Oregon State (16-4)
23. Creighton (16-3)
24. Princeton (15-3)
25. West Virginia (17-2)

Week 13 AP rankings

1. South Carolina
2. Kansas State
3. Iowa
4. Stanford
5. NC State
6. Colorado
8. Ohio State
9. LSU
10. Indiana
11. UConn
12. Texas
13. Baylor
14. Notre Dame
15. USC
16. Louisville
17. Virginia Tech
18. Oregon State
19. Gonzaga
20. Utah
21. Syracuse
22. Creighton
23. West Virginia
24. North Carolina
25. Princeton