FLORIDA (17-9, 7-6 SEC)
NO. 4 SOUTH CAROLINA (24-2, 12-1)
When: 1 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
Florida’s probable starters: G Cassie Peoples 5-6 So. (9.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Jaterra Bonds 5-7 Sr. (15.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg); G January Miller 5-8 So. (10.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg); F Kayla Lewis 6-0 Jr. (11.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg); F Ronni Williams 6-0 Fr. (8.5 ppg 5.8 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G Khadijah Sessions 5-8 So. (8.2 ppg, 1.4 rpg); G Asia Dozier 6-0 So. (6.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-9 So. (15.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 Jr. (14.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg); C Elem Ibiam 6-4 Jr. (9.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg)
Next game: USC hosts Georgia at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
It’s not as easy as they’ve made it look.
“None of the games that we’ve played have been easy,” junior forward Aleighsa Welch insisted on Friday. “I think it’s our mentality. You got to remember, you always have that target on your back.
“I can definitely say I think we’re playing our best basketball of the season, and it’s crazy, because it’s not even to our full potential yet.”
If that’s true, and No. 4 South Carolina does reach its full potential, what’s already been a very special season will become extraordinary. The first two games of its roughest stretch of the season resulted in a 16-point win at No. 19 LSU, and a 23-point win at No. 15 Kentucky. The Gamecocks (24-2, 12-1 SEC) return for a two-game homestand beginning today, with the SEC regular-season championship fully in sight.
USC is playing so well right now that it’s becoming a question of how far the Gamecocks can go. But coach Dawn Staley likes her team’s grounded approach, the same one that got it here.
“It’s never easy,” Staley said of the competition. “What you’re seeing is a team that’s really focused on the task at hand. They have been able to turn the page and re-focus on the next game, smoothly, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Against the Wildcats, USC lost Tiffany Mitchell to early foul trouble and the Wildcats were slipping into their fast-paced style. The leadership of Welch calmed the Gamecocks down and got them to a lead they would never relinquish.
Kentucky cut into the lead a few times, but never got over the initial hump. With Welch playing like a demon all over the floor (her transition block, where she palmed the ball, came down with it and started a fast break, has already became a viral favorite), USC re-established itself and again got a contribution from a somewhat unexpected source.
Khadijah Sessions scored a season-high 18 points and kept pacing the Gamecocks’ offense, staying patient when Kentucky was trying to force USC into its game. That calmed USC down, opened the inside attack and spurred the Gamecocks into realizing that its bread-and-butter offense – working the ball inside – was going to be there as long as they stayed with it.
“I like to run up and down,” Sessions said. “Our team is a fast-paced team. We control tempo most of the time, so we know when to turn it up and when to turn it down.”
They got a look at it and handily won, which should help them against Florida today. Like the Wildcats, the Gators like to run, but don’t have the liberal numbers of Kentucky or any other team. Florida began the year with nine players and is down to eight.
Despite that, despite the Gators’ loss to Missouri on Thursday and despite the game being at home, USC isn’t resting. Staley knows that as soon as a team begins to believe it’s invincible is when a loss appears.
“At this point, I really have no expectations besides just focusing on the game at hand,” Staley said. “But the way that they played at Kentucky, the poise that they’ve been able to play with throughout on the road has just been incredible.”
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