Defensive-minded No. 4 South Carolina loaded on offense
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Dawn Staley doesn't hesitate when asked about No. 4 South Carolina's strength – it's all that offense.
With high-scoring transfers Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray joining a lineup that returns double-digit scorers A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates, the Gamecocks look poised to break records and maybe a few scoreboards this season.
''From an offensive standpoint, we just have layers and layers and talent,'' said the ninth-year coach of the three-time defending Southeastern Conference champions. ''It's just making sure the ball finds the right people in the right moments.''
Wilson is the reigning SEC player of the year who averaged 16.1 points a game last season while senior returnee Coates averaged 12 points last fall as a third option most times behind Wilson and Tiffany Mitchell, a two-time SEC player of the year and the ninth overall pick in the 2016 WNBA draft.
Davis, a lighting quick, smooth-shooting 6-foot-2 guard was third in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 19.1 points a game when she last played for Georgia Tech in 2014-15. That was also Gray's previous season when she averaged 15.8 points a game.
Davis smiles when looking at the offensive potential. She likens the Gamecocks to a college version of the Golden State Warriors and their four-headed offensive monster of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
''Yeah, this is fun,'' Davis said. ''I have such high caliber people around, it makes everyone's job a lot easier.''
Except, maybe, South Carolina's opponent.
Staley has wanted to push the pace since arriving at South Carolina before the 2008-09 season, but has rarely had the consistent scoring from all spots on the floor to make the offense as fluid as she liked. The Gamecocks have relied on sticky defense, Mitchell's clutch scoring and dominant inside play from the 6-5 Wilson and 6-4 Coates to win the past three SEC regular-season titles and last two SEC tournaments.
The formula, though, has not been enough to get the Gamecocks what Staley ultimately wants, a national title.
South Carolina reached its first Final Four two years ago, falling by a point to Notre Dame. The Gamecocks have also lost high-profile showdowns with four-time national champion Connecticut the past two seasons, unable to keep up with UConn's torrid scoring pace.
Staley believes she now has those options.
''It's a team full of talent and we can do a lot more,'' she said.
The Gamecocks head back to No. 3 UConn for another marquee matchup on Feb. 13.
Coates likes the blend she has seen from the team since Davis and Gray joined practice – both sat out last season but worked out with the Gamecocks – and feels the team has the potential to take the next step. She said Davis and Gray both bring Mitchell's scoring punch to the lineup.
''Instead of having that one person to do so much, we have it coming from all these different people,'' she said.
The seemingly always upbeat Gray spent her time away from games working on her pull-up jumper. The 6-foot junior is also adept at three-point shooting, rebounding and defense. When all four are on the floor and clicking, Gray said the team is close to unstoppable.
''We are capable of big things,'' she said.
Staley, like most coaches, is tapping the breaks this time of year until she sees how they blend in games. She has been pleased so far at how unselfish and pass-oriented the players have been in practices. That attitude comes from the two-year college partnership of Wilson and Coates, who can both dominate the middle but often give up open looks for a better shot by the other.
''We're not all selfish players,'' Gray said. ''We're not forcers and `I'm going to get mine.' We go with the flow of the game.''
For now, Staley likes what she's seen.
''There's good team chemistry,'' she said. ''But we've got a ways to go.''
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