The undefeated, top-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks are seeking to repeat as national champions. Spearheaded by the stingiest defense in college basketball by a country mile, Carolina enters Sunday’s rematch of the national title game against UConn looking to make a statement. Their defense is historically good: According to Her Hoop Stats, the Gamecocks are on track to set the second-best defensive efficiency registered by a team since the database first started (2009-10), allowing only 67.1 points per 100 possessions.
Carolina is deep, routinely running 11 players out during a game at minimum. They’re big and long across the board at every position. More importantly, they’re disciplined — while they are aggressive on that end of the floor, they can only get away with that due to how smart and communicative they are as a unit.
Brea Beal, a 6’1 senior wing and four-year starter, is central to Dawn Staley’s defense, even when the opposition tries their best to remove her from the equation. Recently named to the Naismith Women’s Defensive Player of the Year Award watch list alongside teammate Aliyah Boston, Beal has repeatedly made her case as the most impactful defender in the nation.
“You’ve got to watch games,” Beal tells Dime on how she’s able to take over games on defense. “Not just the opponent you’re about to play, you’ve gotta watch tons of games. You’ve got to see basketball, how it works, how people, teams play. You need to watch it and then understand what you’re watching, what you’re looking for.”
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Every game, Beal is tasked with guarding the opposing team’s most dynamic offensive wing or guard. She has the strength and lateral quickness to contain drivers of all varieties. She’s adept at using her length and chest to ward off ball-handlers and bump them out of their comfort zone.
Watching Beal size up her assignment is akin to watching the opening rounds of a title fight. Beal paws, prods, and gauges what this particular matchup will entail to find the sweet spot of where she can cause the most discomfort as the game progresses. If she’s going up against someone smaller, for instance, she’s getting a grasp of her opponent’s speed. If they’re faster, she explains, “that gives me the idea that I need to give them more space so I’m not getting blown past.”
“I trust in myself,” she says, “and know that I can play defense and not get beat.”
Her on-ball exploits pop off the screen, particularly considering how stifling she can be in the most eye-catching actions, but the work she puts in before the stop is made sets her apart. Few players at any size or position can blow up screens and navigate through traffic off of the ball quite like Beal. The purpose of a ball screen is to create space for a ball-handler or shooter, or to cause a defense to overcommit and open up either the screener on the roll or an outlet shooter after help commits to tag the roll.
In response, Beal squeezes the space that screening actions can create.
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“For me being a bigger guard, I have to get low and create my space (against a screener), because if I create my space, a post can’t just come and do whatever they want,” she says. “It comes back to realizing that if you’re not seeing the screen or the whole play, you can mess up the entire defense. So it ties back into watching film: Which way can someone get over a screen the best?”
As Beal mentioned with creating her own space, think of her attacking a screening action like a vacuum seal.
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Watch how Beal sinks her shoulder and body into the oncoming screener while also keeping an arm out, warding off the guard. This makes a screen rejection more difficult, which matters considering this is an empty corner. There is no help until the rim if the guard drives baseline. By staying low and eating up as much space as possible, Beal constricts the space, contains the drive herself, and the defense is largely unaffected.
Notice again how Beal dips her shoulder and shimmies around the screen.
Boston shows and recovers to her assignment, the screener, as Beal catches and halts the drive with her length and composure, again preventing defensive shift.
She’s fully weaponized her mind and approach to film to create controlled havoc for offenses. Beal has her assignment’s shooting motion figured out so she can time up their shots. If she senses hesitancy, she’ll take advantage. Beal doesn’t half-step, she fully commits. If there is an opening to be aggressive, she seizes the opportunity and blows up plays with good positioning and swift hands.
Watch in the first clip how Beal has her eyes on the ball-handler the entire play. The moment they bobble their dribble and look at the ball, she pounces and forces a turnover. These are the plays that go outside scheme, and it’s these moments that make her so great as a defender.
Beal’s awareness stands out in-game. She has an innate sense and understanding of where her teammates and opponents are, mapping out all the players on the floor with her head ever-moving to remain aware of her shifting surroundings. More and more teams have attempted early actions this season to keep Beal off the ball. Instead, because of how good Beal is, they’ve just created another problem for themselves.
“I feel that’s the easiest position for me to be in,” she says. “If I’m on the strong side, a little jab or hand in there could mess up the whole play. If she bobbles the ball and my teammate picks it up, we’re going the other way.”
Note how the moment UConn’s Evina Westbrook looks down and hits a push dribble to get a step on Victaria Saxton, Beal comes flying in to knock the ball off Westbrook’s knee for a turnover.
“When you’re off the ball, you can see everything, you can point out things, you can direct or push people to where they need to be and you can be there for help if people need it,” Beal says.
Beal feels she’s grown as a communicator over the past year as well. She didn’t used to be vocal, but laughs at how she’s now “yelling and screaming” on the court. Carolina starts every practice off with film, which sets the tone for focus and discipline. Beal’s taken it upon herself to bring along the underclassmen and show them the ropes within the defensive system, like the upperclassmen who did the same for her.
She relishes the opportunities to match-up with great players. Her match-ups with Atlanta Dream All-Star Rhyne Howard during her time at Kentucky were appointment viewing last season. The two are friends, and Beal has the goal of playing alongside or against Howard in the WNBA after her senior season, although she is focused on the present.
Beal has an all-around game. She’s grown as a shooter in her time at Carolina, is one of the better passers and playmakers on the team, and has blossomed into a leader while starting for a squad that has made two straight Final Fours with an opportunity to reach a third this March in Dallas.
She isn’t advocating for herself to win the Defensive Player of the Year award, she’d rather do it with her play. She wants to win and compete. She’s quick to point out that she’s just one of five defenders on the best defense in the nation. Beal is sure of herself but isn’t cocky. She gives off the air of someone who has put countless hours of work into her craft and has found confidence within the hours of toiling, watching, learning.
“It took me a few years to get back to the calm Brea,” she says, reminiscing on starting for the Gamecocks as a freshman.
There were real nerves at first, understandably, with playing big minutes for arguably the top program in the country fresh out of high school. Significant games, tournament runs, and top-25 matchups refined Beal’s calm demeanor into one that can’t be rattled.
“When you’re calm and you just play relaxed,” she says, “that’s when good things happen.”