COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knows there’s no time for sulking over her squad’s latest loss to UConn, not with the upcoming challenges the sixth-ranked Gamecocks face in the Southeastern Conference.
”We’re good” mentally, Staley said Wednesday. ”We’re getting right back up.”
The Gamecocks (21-3, 11-1) have little choice, prepping for Vanderbilt on Thursday night and continuing their chase for a fourth consecutive SEC title. Staley understood why some would wonder about her team’s mindset after its 66-55 loss Monday night – the Huskies 100th consecutive win.
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For Staley, though, the game was simply one loss that would not derail the Gamecocks’ run an both an SEC and national championship.
”Win or lose, that game has no bearing on us or our goals and what we need,” she said. ”We get a chance to get back out there and play in one of the toughest leagues in the country.”
That starts with the struggling Commodores (2-10 SEC), who at 12-13 are the only league team with a losing record. Staley won’t let her players take the bait of Vanderbilt’s bad mark.
Staley finished practice with several intense drills, asking players to go hard down the stretch. Post stars A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates were crashing the boards hard as if it were game time instead of just the day before. Allisha Gray drove strongly to the basket, her elbow catching Tiffany Davis square in the chest.
”We’ve got a good basketball team,” Staley said. ”When we’re working on all cylinders on both sides of the ball, we’re a hard team to be reckoned with. That’s what we want to bring” Thursday.
Still, it’s difficult for Staley to fully let go of what happened Monday night in Connecticut.
The Gamecocks played under control much of the game and trailed just 40-37 on Coates’ layup with less than five minutes left in the third quarter. But the Huskies took off on a 12-2 run to close the quarter and South Carolina could not scratch back.
Staley said her outside shooters struggled – Kaela Davis, Gray and Tyasha Harris were a combined 7 of 28 from the field – and South Carolina’s transition defense got torched at times by UConn’s quick-strike offense.
”It’s hard when you turn the ball over, it just leads to imbalance,” Staley said.
The coach said facing the Huskies, even in defeat, will help the Gamecocks going forward.
”It’s good to get experience playing a team like UConn and it’s good to see the results,” she said. ”We were poised, other than having a couple of lapses, we weren’t frightened. It gives us a boost knowing that our players can execute a game plan.”
Staley said now it’s time to move on and put UConn in the rearview mirror.
The Gamecocks, projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, don’t have an easy closing stretch. After facing Vanderbilt, they head to Missouri and then to No. 23 Texas A&M. They end the regular season at home against Kentucky, which along with Tennessee are the only SEC teams with three victories over the Gamecocks in the past five seasons.
Then comes the SEC Tournament and perhaps a rematch with No. 4 Mississippi State, who South Carolina defeated 64-61 on Jan. 23, heading up to the NCAA Tournament.
Staley will keep drilling her team for the most important part of the season in March.
”We’re a work in progress,” she said. ”I know a lot of people want us to be a finished product now. But we’ve got a freshman point guard, two very talented wings who came from totally different systems and we’re just trying to mesh it all together.”
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This story has been corrected to make it Alaina Coates instead of Alaina Stewart.