No. 1 Gamecocks focused on Georgia with No. 2 UConn up next
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The countdown to Connecticut is on - and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley realizes there's little she or her top-ranked Gamecocks can do to squelch the anticipation of next week's No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown.
But the Huskies don't have next on the Gamecocks' slate, that would be No. 22 Georgia on Thursday night. Staley and South Carolina (21-0, 9-0 Southeastern Conference) are not looking past Georgia, but they are constantly being reminded of their Feb. 9 matchup with the defending national champions.
Staley felt the rising excitement about the Connecticut game and asked her players if they were thinking about the high-profile matchup.
Some said they were, but nonetheless the coach said her group has done well staying in the moment and will be ready to pay Georgia.
''A lot of them said they were thinking about it,'' Staley said Tuesday. ''But they're also focused on the task at hand.''
Staley, the three-time gold medalist and basketball Hall of Famer, has played in enough big games to understand she can't put the Gamecocks in a bubble, shutting out all distractions.
Senior forward Aleighsa Welch said the Gamecocks take pride in their level-headed approach, something that hasn't changed all year and won't now.
South Carolina has more than doubled its previous best start (10-0) in school history and has won 18 straight in the 11 weeks it has spent atop the national rankings.
''You have to challenge yourself individually just to stay focused,'' said Welch, averaging 9.3 points and 5.5 rebounds this season. ''Because if you look too far ahead, that's the moment you're most vulnerable.''
The Gamecocks have shown very few cracks during their run. Since a 51-50 win at No. 15 Duke in early December, South Carolina has only had one victory of fewer than 10 points in a 68-60 defeat of No. 11 Kentucky on Jan. 10.
Welch said Thursday night will be a big game against Georgia, which is 12-0 at home this season.
Win or lose at Connecticut, ''We've still got the SEC ahead of us,'' she said.
Staley has complimented her team's ability to thrive when the pressures of maintaining a perfect record - No. 19 Princeton (19-0) is the only other undefeated team in major women's college basketball - might break apart a group with less focus.
''Our team is a team that is staying in the moment,'' Staley said. ''We had great practice today, great preparing. We've got one more day to work on Georgia and that's what we'll do.''
South Carolina has struggled at Georgia with a 2-15 overall record. Staley is just 1-3 in Athens in seven seasons as South Carolina's coach.
Despite the challenge Georgia presents, the Gamecocks can't escape the UConn chatter.
Friends, family and classmates bring the game up all the time, both to congratulate Welch on what the Gamecocks have accomplished this season and as a motivational reminder that the one-loss Huskies still receive several No. 1 votes in the rankings each week.
''You embrace it because you know people are excited'' to talk about Connecticut, she said. ''But in your mind, you're like, `OK, we're talking about it, but we're still focusing on this other game.''
The contest is even harder to ignore for South Carolina freshman A'ja Wilson, the 6-foot-5 forward who turned down Connecticut among others to play for the Gamecocks.
Wilson has averaged 13.7 points and seven rebounds a game this season, earning her fourth SEC freshman of the week honor for her efforts in South Carolina's wins over No. 14 Texas A&M, Alabama and Ole Miss last week.
''It's not a secret we're going to play them,'' Wilson said. ''You can't hide from it and say, `No, we're not going to play UConn on Monday.' But we understand what has to be done.''