No. 7 South Carolina seeking 4th straight SEC title
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina coach Dawn Staley wanted to keep her seventh-ranked Gamecocks focused on beating Texas A&M and tried to keep secret that Kentucky got them back in the Southeastern Conference title chase by beating No. 3 Mississippi State.
”Somehow, they had the information,” Staley said, smiling. ”They didn’t have their phones, so I don’t know how they got it.”
The question now for South Carolina (23-4, 13-2 SEC) is if they can make the most of their chance for a fourth straight SEC crown – a feat only accomplished once before by Tennessee’s remarkable seven straight regular-season championships from 1998 to 2004.
”This is a resilient group,” Staley said.
The Gamecocks looked finished last Sunday after a stunning 62-60 defeat at No. 22 Missouri. But Kentucky (20-8, 11-4) 78-75 overtime win earlier Thursday dropped Mississippi State into a tie for the top with South Carolina.
”I was a Big Blue Nation fan last night,” Staley said. ”Now, it’s time to put the rival cap back on.”
Should the Gamecocks defeat the Wildcats on Sunday, they would win the SEC regular season – the league calls those tied at the top champions, not co-champions – and claim the top seed to next week’s league tournament because of an earlier victory over the Bulldogs.
”We weren’t paying it any mind because we knew we had a game to win,” said Bianca Cuevas-Moore, who scored 16 points against Texas A&M. ”We didn’t want to look ahead.”
The Gamecocks might have to try for the crown without 6-foot-4 Alaina Coates, who missed the Texas A&M game with a sprained right ankle. Coates saw a doctor again Friday and Staley labeled the SEC’s leading rebounder as day to day.
For much of the season, no one seemed able to stop South Carolina’s championship drive. The Gamecocks started 8-0 in league play including a 64-61 showdown win with the SEC’s other Top-10 team in Mississippi State.
South Carolina lost its SEC cushion and 30-game home win streak over SEC opponents with a last-second, 76-74 defeat to Tennessee on Jan. 30.
The panic for a fan base accustomed to winning set in after last week’s loss at Missouri that dropped the Gamecocks a game behind Mississippi State heading into the final week of the regular season. Then came Thursday’s upheaval, giving South Carolina new hope to keep its title streak alive.
”We’d been in a little slump,” Cuevas-Moore said. ”But I think we’re picking it up.”
Staley said her team showed a level of togetherness and verve at Texas A&M that she had not seen in a while. The group will need a similar mindset against Kentucky, which had won five of nine meetings with the Gamecocks between 2012 and 2015.
The Wildcats took out one top-10 contender this week.
”We’ve got a bunch of basketball left. We’ve got to keep going. We got to bounce back and get ready to compete against a really talented South Carolina team,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.
South Carolina senior Tiffany Davis would love to cap her career with a fourth consecutive SEC title. When she arrived with Coates for the 2012-13 season, the Gamecocks were a building program that had not yet achieved the lofty goals Staley set.
Davis is looking to walk off the court Sunday as a four-time league champion.
”The talent level has increased, the hustle, everything has increased,” Davis said. ”But we still have the same mindset, a defensive mindset and getting the job done.”
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