COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina coach Dawn Staley believes her latest Southeastern Conference champions are better equipped to handle what’s next than her first group a season ago.
Staley and the Gamecocks were in the midst of breakthrough season in 2014 and celebrated the school’s first Southeastern Conference on their home floor, league commissioner Mike Slive on hand to present the trophy.
The party, though, was largely over as South Carolina couldn’t live up to expectations in the SEC tournament and the NCAAs as a No. 1 seed.
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The No. 2 Gamecocks (27-1, 15-0 SEC) again clinched a share of their second championship with Thursday night’s 71-66 victory over No. 11 Mississippi State. They can win the title outright as they close the regular season at No. 13 Kentucky (20-8, 9-6) Sunday.
South Carolina also can win the title outright should Tennessee lose to Vanderbilt on Sunday.
Staley said the slide started in last year’s regular-season finale with a disappointing, 73-61 loss at Tennessee.
”That had a trickle-down effect going into the SEC tournament,” Staley said.
It certainly did.
South Carolina flamed out in last year’s SEC tournament semifinals, then lost to North Carolina in a round of 16 NCAA contest, far short of the Final Four.
Those lessons have stayed with the Gamecocks, who’ve embraced the high expectations set upon them this year – and barely flinched.
They can equal the 16-0 mark of Tennessee’s 2011 champions with a win over the Wildcats, who gave the Gamecocks only one of their two SEC contests decided by single digits in South Carolina’s 68-60 victory last month.
”I think this team is ready for the challenges of post season,” Staley said Friday.
Staley said that’s started with senior forward Aleighsa Welch, an all-SEC first team performer last year who went for 19 points and 14 rebounds in South Carolina’s 71-66 showdown victory Monday night over the Lady Vols.
Staley said Welch was among several team members who struggled to focus on moving forward, instead reveling in the league title and No. 1 seed. This time, Staley said Welch’s has her mind right and locked on to everything still left to accomplish.
”For her to exorcise those demons is a great thing at this time to set the stage for the rest of the team,” Staley said.
Welch finished with two points and six rebounds against Mississippi State, although her effectiveness dropped after she crash landed on the hardwood floor after her legs were cut out from under her.
Welch spent a short time in the locker room before running back to the court. She says the tumble won’t keep her from the action at Kentucky and beyond.
Welch believes last season’s downturn came from not having much to play for in their final regular season game. That’s not the case this time since the Gamecocks don’t want to share the title with Tennessee.
”We’re in full control of our destiny when it comes to the regular-season championship,” Welch said. ”It’s not a matter what anybody else does, it’s a matter of what we need to do.”
South Carolina also has improved personnel, particularly with the addition of SEC freshman of the year favorite A’ja Wilson. The 6-foot-5 newcomer has scored in double figures in all but four SEC games this season.
Welch said South Carolina’s returning players will do what they must to let Wilson know how much the disheartening losses at the end affected last year’s landmark season.
”It’s kind of something you keep in the back of your mind as a feeling you don’t want to feel again,” Welch said. ”You really don’t want to face the disappointment that we felt.
”You never want to walk out,” Welch said, ”feeling that way.”