UConn women face red-hot No. 12 South Carolina tonight
Columbia, S.C. — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley does not think her players are done achieving big things, no matter how bad the 12th-ranked Gamecocks looked early on in their first season without All-American A'ja Wilson.
They took some time to adjust to a score of newcomers and fresh faces, starting the season 4-4 with losses to No. 1 Baylor, No. 7 Oregon State and No. 10 Maryland that made it look like the Gamecocks would not be able to maintain their top 10 status the 2017 national champs had reached in Wilson's four seasons.
"I knew a time would come when we would get better," Staley said Sunday.
That time may be now.
The Gamecocks (17-5) have won 13 of their last 14 games heading into Monday night's latest showdown at No. 5 UConn (21-2). Their lone loss in more than two months has come at No. 6 Mississippi State. South Carolina has won at ranked opponents in No. 18 Texas A&M and No. 19 Kentucky during that stretch and last time out rolled over Ole Miss 76-42, their largest margin of victory this season.
The Gamecocks are doing it in a bit of a different way than during Wilson's time, relying on its quick, pesky guards like Tyasha Harris and Te'a Cooper to overpower opponents instead of relying on the post play of the 6-foot-5 Wilson or 6-4 Alaina Coates.
"Was it painful in the beginning? Yeah, for all of us," Staley said. "When we saw what we had on the roster and what we work with every day, we feel like when we get it together, we could compete with anybody in the country."
They get that chance against the Huskies, who are 7-0 all-time against South Carolina including 0-6 during Staley's time.
UConn remains skilled and dominant despite losing two games a pair of games to Baylor and No. 2 Louisville. Staley stood with her mouth open when she was asked if this were a down year for the Huskies. If anything, Staley believes UConn is as formidable as ever and the Gamecocks will need big games from Harris, Cooper and Alexis Jennings to pull off the upset.
"They're still UConn and they still have time to mold into the great team that they've been," said Harris, who's started at point guard since arriving three seasons ago.
Staley chuckles about her young team's attitude toward things. The losses or challenges don't seem to affect them that much. When prepping for the start of SEC play against Texas A&M and star scorer Chennedy Carter last month, Staley said Gamecocks freshman guard Destanni Henderson, "Well, I can't guard her. But she can't guard me, either."
Harris understands too well how teams that get knocked around early may not recover mentally, especially those with histories of success like South Carolina. But the Gamecocks, Harris said, took the early defeats to heart, studying the mistakes and working in practice to eliminate the deficiencies.
"It was pretty early on, our adversity, but we overcame it and we're gelling together now," Harris said. "I'm excited to see us growing."
UConn guard Katie Lou Samuelson said the Huskies want to play a complete game against a top opponent.
"It's been a while since we played well together against a top team and we want to put our best foot forward," she said. "We don't want to have these stalemates when we don't know what we're doing on offense, or it kind of looks jumbled. We want to make sure we're executing."
Win or lose against UConn, there plenty of hurdles left for the Gamecocks. They play Kentucky at home later this month and close the regular season against Mississippi State, most likely with an SEC championship and top league-tournament seed on the line.
Should South Carolina earn a top-four seed to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, it will have to find a replacement somewhere else in the Palmetto State instead of its home arena since the NCAA men's event will fill up the building the same weekend next month.
Staley believes her team is ready for it all.
"I know nobody else thinks this, but it gives us high hopes of getting back to (Final Four site) Tampa with hopes of another national championship," she said.