COLUMBIA, S.C.—On a Star Wars-themed Sunday afternoon, the reigning national champion Gamecocks gave their fans an opportunity to dress up and mask their faces. But for the Blue Devils, their problems defending the low post could not hide behind even Darth Vader’s helmet.

South Carolina used its force to dominate the boards en route to a 72-52 win. The Blue Devils—the tallest team in the ACC—had outrebounded their opponents in all but one game entering Sunday’s matchup, but their defense on the low post could not contain senior A’ja Wilson, the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft.

Aiding Wilson in the front court, redshirt junior Alexis Jennings worked the offensive boards to account for eight of the Gamecocks’ 15 offensive rebounds in the contest. Wilson added three rebounds on the offensive end and scored 18 points, Jennings chipped in a game-high 21 and both finished with double-double, as Duke was unable to stop the prolific duo.

“It’s just effort. That’s how you get your possessions.... If you’re not going to box out, at least crash the boards,” Wilson said. “It’s just how we get this basketball in our hands and I think we really attack the glass pretty well. Points in the paint are our bread and butter, and that’s where the rebounds are normally going off the paint, so going out there and crashing the boards was huge.”

Senior Erin Mathias led the Blue Devils in many key statistical areas. The Pittsburgh native finished the road matchup with a career-high 16 points in her 100th game donning the blue and white. Mathias also recorded six rebounds and two blocks against a strong front line, but she didn’t get much help on the boards from her teammates in the post, as sophomore Leaonna Odom only collected a single rebound for her season low.

One of the difference-makers for Duke was its inability to stay out of foul trouble. Mathias fouled out of the game with 61 seconds remaining on the clock, well after the outcome had been decided, but playing in foul trouble for much of the second half left the senior on the bench and less physical on the defensive end, and South Carolina took advantage.

“We know how physical they were. I can’t foul out of the game or take myself out of the game,” Mathias said. “They definitely were playing very, very physical with us and we’ve got to be smarter.”

In the low post, South Carolina’s starting frontcourt duo combined to shoot 17-of-31 from the field, and the Gamecocks’ 54 points in the paint outscored the entire Blue Devil team. South Carolina continually executed when given the opportunity and outrebounded Duke 40-26 to clean up a lot of its misses.

The Blue Devils attempted to find the right fit to limit the Gamecocks’ production. Unlike in many games thus far, Duke turned to freshman Madison Treece early and often. The St. Peters, Mo., native finished the game scoreless in 12 minutes and misfired on the first 3-pointer of her young career, one of Duke’s nine misses from long range.

“It was just an opportunity for the post. You could see that Jennings and Wilson were giving us trouble so [we were] rotating some post players, trying to see what they could do and how physical they could play,” Blue Devil head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I don’t think you’ll see a more physical post player than Wilson, so all of our posts got an opportunity to see what that was like with Wilson and Jennings in there and how to play.”

Graduate student Bego Faz Davalos and freshman Jade Williams also saw action in the frontcourt for nine and three minutes, respectively. Davalos finished the game with only one rebound and a season-high six points, and Williams chipped in two points and two offensive boards. But the freshman was hindered by three fouls during a span of two seconds in her short time on the hardwood. 

Duke resorted to committing a multitude of fouls in an attempt to slow down the Gamecocks’ powerful duo, but the number of fouls soon caught up with the Blue Devils and left them looking for answers.

“We didn’t really concentrate on getting them in foul trouble. We knew what would work with whoever they had in the game. It just so happened that we put them in a position to foul us,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “We knew our high-low, our ability to carve out some space in the paint, our ability to drive from the high post. All of those things were things in which we felt like we had the advantage. That was our strength to win this game.”

Until Sunday, the Blue Devils had yet to face an opponent that ran two tall players in the 6-foot-5 Wilson and 6-foot-3 Jennings. Those two athletes provided a dilemma that even Luke Skywalker would have struggled to solve.

When one forward attacked the rim, the weak side was left open for a rebound, and the chemistry between the two star players was apparent on and off the court. The two shared a laugh on the podium in their postgame press conference.

“[Jennings is] benefitting from Wilson being such a great player, drawing so much attention,” McCallie said. “She’s being opportunistic as well, because any player to get eight offensive rebounds in a game, we haven’t done our job of boxing out.”

Fortunately for McCallie, her team will have time to work on the necessary changes in order to get back on a winning streak. The Blue Devils will take the floor at Cameron Indoor Stadium Thursday night against a UNC Greensboro team that lacks the size to compare with the fifth-ranked Gamecocks.

“We definitely had a key focus on their post and their inside presence for sure,” Mathias said. “But everyone on their team is able to do things, so we wanted to try and stop everyone on the team, but just couldn’t quite get to what we wanted.”