Got next: South Carolina faces top-seeded Baylor in NCAAs
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley doesn’t enjoy watching her last game against Baylor, even as the Gamecocks prepare for another shot at the top-seeded Lady Bears in the Sweet 16 this week.
It was sickening showing for Staley, her team getting outscored 32-13 in the first quarter on the way to a 94-69 romp in South Carolina’s building. This time, Staley believes she has a healthier, more accomplished group.
“We have a better understanding of each other and I think we’re confident at this time,” Staley said Wednesday.
The Gamecocks positive vibes come from a strong weekend where fourth-seeded South Carolina (23-9) topped Belmont and No. 5 seed Florida State to reach their sixth straight Sweet 16 after entering NCAA play with two consecutive losses.
The Gamecocks face Baylor on Saturday. The other game in the Greensboro Region features No. 2 seed Iowa (28-6) vs. No. 3 seed North Carolina State (28-6).
Staley, USA Basketball women’s national team coach, put her Gamecocks through a mini-boot camp following their quarterfinals loss to Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference Tournament earlier this month. She drilled them relentlessly in getting back to the tough defense that helped South Carolina average 32 wins a year the previous five seasons and capture the 2017 national championship.
The work has paid off, South Carolina point guard Tyasha Harris said .
“We’re a different team,” Harris said. “We’re just going to keep pushing and bringing our effort.”
The coach said she and players were gratified with the winning results heading into the next round of the NCAAs.
“I thought the things that we worked on between the SEC Tournament and the time we had to play,” she said. “I thought it had a huge impact on our psyche and confidence.”
They’ll need that and more to get past the Bears, who are tall, strong and talented — and an almost universal pick to move through the Greensboro Region and into the Final Four.
“You have to have a level of confidence even though you lost by 25,” Staley said. “We’ve had two pretty good energized, focus practices the last two days. We’ve got two more days to prep and we’ve just got to keep them in that state of mind. No one’s got us winning the game, so I think we can run around and play a little bit loose.”
The Gamecocks will have forward Alexis Jennings and guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore at full strength. The two have dealt played through injuries this season, but Staley said they are as healthy as they can be right now.
Jennings and Cuevas-Moore are seniors who were part of the national title program (Jennings practiced with the team in 2017, but did not play as she was a Kentucky transfer) and understand what it takes to win.
When the teams played in December, the Lady Bears ended things quickly. Staley said South Carolina tried to zone Baylor to keep 6-foot-7 Kelani Brown and 6-4 Lauren Cox (who combine to average more than 28 points a game) from getting easy inside looks. Instead, the Lady Bears shot over the top of the Gamecocks’ defense and made nearly 55 percent of their attempts for the game.
This time, Staley said she is turning her players loose to stick tight to the Lady Bears.
“We’re going to play the style of defense we’ve been playing over the past couple of weeks,” she said. “Just try and disrupt and hopefully, we won’t have to bear the brunt of playing their half-court defense for 25, 30 seconds. That’s hard.”
If that happens, Staley things the Gamecocks can hang with Baylor and give themselves a chance at the end.
“It’s anybody’s game at that point,” she said.