COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knows history will be made Monday night. She just hopes she’s on the winning side.
The sixth-ranked Gamecocks are heading to No. 1 UConn for the Gamecocks’ latest try to topple the undefeated , four-time NCAA Tournament defending champions who have not lost since early in the 2014-15 season.
If South Carolina fails, UConn could notch its 100th consecutive victory, a remarkable milestone unmatched in NCAA basketball – and one Staley bets most women’s hoops fans are hoping they don’t see.
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”I think it’s good for the game for them to get rocked a little bit,” Staley said.
No one has been able to rock the Huskies this season. Connecticut’s 23-0 mark so far – it faces 13-10 SMU, a team it defeated 88-48 last month on the road, this Saturday for a chance to win No. 99 in a row- features victories over No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 Maryland, No. 5 Florida State and No. 7 Notre Dame.
”They’ve played everybody,” Staley said. ”They haven’t shied away from playing tough competition.”
Neither have the Gamecocks, whose 21-2 mark includes victories over four top 25 teams, three who were in the top 10 at the time they played Ohio State, Louisville and UCLA. Whether it’s been enough to prepare South Carolina for the challenge is another matter.
The Gamecocks are led by the best post duo in the game in 6-foot-5 A’ja Wilson and 6-4 Alaina Coates . The pair has averaged a combined 31 points and 18.6 rebounds in keeping South Carolina atop the Southeastern Conference and tracking toward a fourth consecutive league title.
Together they had 33 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks in a 60-41 win over Auburn on Thursday night, South Carolina’s last contest before UConn.
The rest of the starters are playing their first year under Staley: high-profile transfers Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, and freshman point guard Tyasha Harris.
Davis, an all-ACC performer for Georgia Tech, is the team leader in three-point shooting, but overall is hitting less than 35 percent of her field goal attempts. Gray, the former North Carolina star, has shown versatility and steady defense.
Both, though, have disappeared for stretches when South Carolina focuses on its inside power.
Harris supplanted junior Bianca Cuevas-Moore as starting point guard because of her willingness to distribute instead of looking to score.
South Carolina has come up short against UConn the past two seasons despite having players like two-time SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell and Aleighsa Welch, who helped turn the Gamecocks into a national power.
Staley’s eager to see what her new group has for the Huskies.
”That’s a good question,” Staley said. ”I like the personnel we’re taking to the game. We can score from all five positions.”
South Carolina had looked for a signature win against UConn in 2015 in a No. 1-vs.-2 showdown where the Huskies returned to the top with an 87-62 victory. Last year, in the return match at South Carolina, the Gamecocks fell behind by 21 points before a fourth-quarter rally tightened the final margin to 66-54.
”We kind of know how significant” playing Connecticut is, Coates said. ”We really have to prep the young ones and the new ones just how serious it is. We’ll have everybody ready.”
Staley has worked closely with UConn coach Geno Auriemma the past two years as an assistant on the U.S. women’s national team, helping lead that group to gold at the Rio Olympics.
She’s seen up close Auriemma’s style and how he runs a successful, winning program – something Staley’s working to bring to South Carolina. She looks to take a big step toward that goal in her next game.
”We’re going to give it our best shot,” she said. ”Probably everybody in America’s going to be cheering for us so I hope they send positive vibes to Storrs,” Connecticut.
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