COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Zia Cooke was so excited to get to play again that she could barely sleep. She and her teammates with top-ranked South Carolina picked up where they left off in a runaway victory to start the fragile season.
Victaria Saxton had 19 points and 12 rebounds and Cooke scored 18 points as the Gamecocks overwhelmed Charleston 119-38 on Wednesday for their 27th straight win.
Cooke was worried her team might not get to play at all as the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact college sports as it did last spring, when SEC champion South Carolina missed out on a chance at a national title.
“I had huge worries about that,” she said.
The Gamecocks had no worries about their basketball, though.
“Everybody’s growing, so it’s going to get better and better each year,” Cooke said. “We’ve got so much in store, I’m not going to give away everything we’ve got.”
South Carolina had seven players score in double figures and four had double-doubles, including Aliyah Boston with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
After last season’s NCAA Tournament was canceled, this team’s goal is simple — finish what it couldn’t last spring.
“It felt really great to get back on the court. We were real excited to get back and playing because COVID messed things up for everybody, not only us,” Saxton said.
It was the same quick, offensive-minded Gamecocks.
Destanni Henderson made a layup 5 seconds into the game and the South Carolina never looked back. Taylor Williams got the Cougars’ first point with a foul shot. After the team missed its first 17 shots, Williams’ jumper made it 24-5 with 1:37 left in the opening quarter.
The Gamecocks led 62-20 at the half and Laeticia Amihere’s free throw with 7:47 left got them to 100 points for the eighth time in coach Dawn Staley’s 13 seasons.
They soon topped their best-ever showing under Staley, accomplished last year in a 112-32 victory over SC Upstate.
Williams led Charleston with nine points.
Cougars coach Robin Harmony said she gave minutes to young players to help them learn how to handle big situations.
“It’s just a matter of everybody watching and learning and saying, ‘I’m going to change. I’m going to make this different,’” Harmony said.
There was an eerie atmosphere with only 3,500 people permitted inside 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena.
South Carolina led the NCAA in average attendance for women’s hoops last year, the powerhouse program drawing 12,218 fans a game. The school had sellouts against UConn and Texas A&M and had the top-three most attended games of last season.
Instead of fans, there were smiling cutouts spaced around the arena and the fans who were there sat far apart.
“Weird is probably right on” about the atmosphere, Staley said. “It’s hard after you build something.”
The benches were spaced out, too, with individual chairs for coaches and players at least 6 feet away from each other.
Artificial crowd noise made it sound fuller than it was. South Carolina does not play at home again until Dec. 3, when it faces No. 8 North Carolina State.
Charleston: The Cougars went 13-17 in Harmony’s first season, an improvement of six games from a season earlier. Still, Charleston had little chance against the quicker, stronger, more athletic Gamecocks.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks will likely have more difficult tests ahead. They are set to play South Dakota, Oklahoma and No. 21 Gonzaga in a tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Ten of 11 players for South Carolina sat in their chairs during the playing of the national anthem. A team statement said the players did it to bring awareness to the need for racial equality, social justice and an end to systemic racism in the United States. Only junior forward Elysa Wesolek stood, along with Staley and her staff.
Cooke said players wanted to make sure people didn’t forget some of the social justice issues that arose this summer simply because time has passed. “Us as a team, we wanted to be strong together and take a stand together,” she said.
Staley has her fingers crossed the Gamecocks can play in South Dakota, where COVID-19 cases are rising. “Does it scare me? Absolutely. Does it scare our players? Absolutely,” she said.
Staley said she’ll monitor a men’s basketball event taking place there now. If there are outbreaks of COVID-19, “we’ll have to talk about the next move that comes from that.”
Charleston opens its home season against Wofford on Sunday.
South Carolina is scheduled to play South Dakota on Saturday, the first of its three games in Sioux Falls.
More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25