At about the time you sit down with your family today for Thanksgiving dinner, Dawn Staley and her her extended family, the South Carolina women's basketball team, will be feasting on three days of challenging games in the U.S. Virgin Island Paradise Jam.
The Gamecocks tip off the tournament against No. 20 Oklahoma at 1 p.m. today and will play No. 5 Notre Dame Saturday and San Diego State on Sunday. All three opponents made the NCAA tournament last season. The other four teams in the Jam are Mississippi State, Rutgers, Southern Cal and Texas.
"This tournament will be a challenge for our team," Staley said. "Anytime you play three teams of that caliber, it can only help. I think going in, we are probably the lowest-seeded team in the field. Hopefully that means the other teams will take us a little lightly."
The contest against the Sooners could be a measuring stick. They last played during the 2007-08 season, and Oklahoma won by 32. Staley doesn't think this team will fair that poorly.
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"We're young, and sometimes you don't know what to expect, but I like to think we will more competitive than that," Staley said. "All three games will show us things we have to work on. That is the reason you play these types of games early in the year."
South Carolina is not the tournament favorite but could surprise if a couple of newcomers continue to perform as well as they have.
Freshman Kelsey Bone has lived up to her billing and is leading the Gamecocks with 21.5 points a game and is second with 11 rebounds a game.
She is the first player in school history to open her career with back-to-back double-doubles. She just missed making it three in a row when USC (2-1) defeated Penn State in its home opener Sunday; Bone had 10 points and eight rebounds.
The Houston native is looking forward to playing against high-level competition this early in the season.
"This is what the SEC is going to be every night," Bone said. "If we want to get to the level we want to be playing, this is the type of teams we have to play to get there."
Valerie Nainima is second on the team in scoring at 19.7 points a game. The junior transfer from Long Island University has been the Gamecocks' main 3-point threat. She has 10 of the team's 15 made 3-pointers.
Charenee Stephens missed the loss to Clemson but is averaging a double-double. The sophomore is averaging 13 points and a team-best 11.5 rebounds per game. She usually comes off the bench and is the spark plug for the second unit.
"We're still trying to gel and come together as a team," Staley said. "We need to continue to work. We're a new lineup, and that takes time. Playing in this tournament is going to help; regardless of the outcome, it's going to help."
USC Gamecocks vs Oklahoma Sooners
WHEN: 1 p.m. today
WHERE: U.S. Virgin Islands (Paradise Jam tournament)
RECORDS: USC 2-1, Oklahoma 2-1
COACHES: Dawn Staley (12-19 in two seasons at USC, 184-99 in nine seasons overall). Sherri Coale (288-133 in 14 seasons at Oklahoma and overall)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This is the first of three games in three days against NCAA tournament teams for the Gamecocks. The Gamecocks this season have shown a tendency to start slow and get in the flow in the second half. They probably won't be able to do that against improved competition in this tournament.
BOTTOM LINE: A win in any of the three games would give USC a boost when it returns home for three consecutive home games. Staley knows these are the type of games the Gamecocks must win to build a postseason resume.
- Chris Dearing