Gamecocks women’s team putting last year’s success behind
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley has put last year’s Final Four trip behind her. She hopes her team will do that, too.
Staley and the two-time Southeastern Conference defending champions opened practice Monday on a season where simply getting to the Final Four might not be enough for a satisfactory season. Staley, who made three Final Four trips while Virginia’s All-American point guard without winning a title, said Monday in order for her team to achieve more than last year, they will have to work harder than they did a year ago.
That’s a lesson that hadn’t sunk in on the first day of workouts.
”It’s over with now,” Staley said of the school’s first Final Four berth. ”I enjoyed it while we were experiencing it. But just trying to get back there, the hard work that it took to get there, it’s going to be that much harder.”
Staley said the Gamecocks, ranked No. 1 for 12 weeks last season, enter this year with heavier expectations and should get even more of opponents” best efforts to bring them down.
”I think that’s the part that our players don’t understand,” Staley said. ”And as coaches, it’s on us to get them ready, to not look past any step.”
That could be harder to do in practice with two-time SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell on the sidelines watching workouts instead of participating. Mitchell had surgery to fix a stress-related fracture in her left foot this past August. She was sprinting and riding the stationary cycle during drills. Mitchell should be full-go for workouts in about two weeks, Staley said, and be ready for South Carolina’s opener against Ohio State on Nov. 13.
Alaina Coates, South Carolina’s junior forward, said it was eating Mitchell up not to run the floor with the Gamecocks.
”She doesn’t want to feel like she’s letting us down,” Coates said. ”She’s not letting us down, but it just means more to us to see her doing extra to get back to us.”
The Gamecocks also began life without two of their most important starters in all-SEC performers Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam. The two seniors from last year’s squad were vocal leaders who Staley said will take time to replace because of all they did to solidify the team during their years.
Workouts included three Atlantic Coast Conference transfers. Sarah Imovbioh, a 6-foot-2 forward, is a graduate transfer from Virginia who led the ACC in rebounding last year. She is eligible to play immediately.
Two other, high-scoring transfers in Georgia Tech’s Kaela Davis and North Carolina’s Allisha Gray, will sit out this season due to NCAA rules. Both are able to practice with the Gamecocks this year.
Imovbioh said when she arrived she found new teammates far from satisfied with their 66-65 national semifinal loss to Notre Dame.
”It was more, `We don’t care about the Final Four. We should’ve beaten Notre Dame and competed for a championship,”’ Imovbioh said. ”That’s the attitude they bring to practice. I’m excited about that.”
South Carolina went 34-3 last season, its only losses coming to national champion Connecticut, Kentucky and to the Irish at the Final Four.
Staley said she’s using Mitchell’s absence to speed up the game for her young players. The coach is confident the Gamecocks can run their half-court plays, many of them called for Mitchell, and wants her players to increase the pace and take advantage of easy transition opportunities.
Sophomore point guard Bianca Cuevas found streaking forward A’ja Wilson on a break for an easy layup that Staley hopes to see more of this season.
”We’re seeing where people can elevate their games to make an impact for us,” the coach said.