No. 1 South Carolina women gaining comfort, wins in SEC

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina coach Dawn Staley sees her young stars getting comfortable – and that could mean problems for opponents hoping to knock off the No. 1 Gamecocks.

South Carolina is off to its best start in school history and its longest winning streak at 16-0. Staley believes her younger players – she brought in the country’s second-best recruiting class including the No. 1 college prospect in 6-foot-5 A’ja Wilson- have gained confidence since the Southeastern Conference season began.

The Gamecocks have won their four league games by an average of 23 points and shown more consistency than before SEC play started. They play at Missouri (11-6, 1-3) on Thursday night.

”I think we’re a little bit more comfortable with each other,” Staley said Wednesday. ”I think SEC play provides us the opportunity to pay a little bit more attention to details. The games that we’ve played have really helped our young players know that there’s a different level.”

South Carolina has shown that against its league rivals so far this season.

While No. 1 for eight straight weeks, the Gamecocks looked vulnerable in several games in November and December. They struggled much of the season opener with Southern Cal before winning 70-61, trailed No. 25 Syracuse into the final moments at the Junkanoo Jam in a 67-63 victory and were down by 50-46 with less than 20 seconds left at No. 16 Duke last month, yet rallied to win 51-50.

Those close calls got the Gamecocks attention. They opened SEC play with a 19-point win over Auburn, then put up consecutive blowouts on the road at LSU (75-51) and Alabama (102-59).

Even in last Sunday’s 68-60 victory over No. 10 Kentucky, the Gamecocks built a double-digit lead in the second half before the Wildcats cut into the margin at the end.

Wilson, South Carolina’s second leading scorer (13.8 points) and rebounder (7.2), said players understood there’d be adjustments to make and a learning curve to surmount one practice and game at a time.

”I think it’s really just who we are,” Wilson said. ”Each day we’re coming out here in practice and working our butts off. And that translates over to the game.”

The final score might not always show it, but Staley said the Gamecocks have faced tougher, more physical games in the SEC.

Senior starter Aleighsa Welch took a hard tumble trying to rebound against Auburn and sprained her neck. Defending SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell was still sore from the game with Kentucky, Staley said.

”The games may get out of hand, meaning we’ve had some lopsided scores,” the seventh-year coach said. ”But the physicality, the fast play, the tempo, all of it’s a little bit different than what we faced” before SEC play opened.

Staley’s settled into a comfort zone, too. After experimenting with several lineups the season’s first two months, she’s gone with a more experienced starting five with Wilson and last year’s SEC freshman of the year Alaina Coates coming off the bench.

Wilson and Coates have combine for 11 of the team’s 12 performances with double figure points and rebounds.

It’s a rotation that works, Wilson said. ”I love coming off the bench,” she said. ”It’s the best thing.”

There are plenty of difficult tests ahead for the Gamecocks. They have games left with the rest of the ranked SEC teams in No. 11 Texas A&M, No. 15 Mississippi State and No. 18 Georgia. South Carolina concludes the regular season with a rematch at Kentucky.

Oh, yes, it also plays at No. 2 Connecticut on Feb. 9.

Staley couldn’t be happier with how her team has handled the attention of No. 1 and its unbeaten streak.

”We got really level-headed players,” she said. ”Partly because our coaching staff is always on them about shortcomings. We know we’re not a finished product.”

And a group pointed toward its ultimate goals.

”That’s what we talk about,” said reserve Tina Roy, ”an undefeated season and a national championship.”