They got the news in the best way possible – on the bus home, after a win. South Carolina beat Tennessee, then watched Auburn lose as it was coming back to Columbia this past Sunday to give the Gamecocks the SEC championship.
But it was only a muted celebration (granted, they stopped for ice cream). There’s so much more to accomplish.
“They didn’t train today like they just won a championship,” coach Shelley Smith said on Tuesday. “They came out ready to go. They want to complete the season and stay on top going into postseason play.”
The 16-0-1 Gamecocks, SEC regular-season champs for the second time under Smith, andare the second-ranked team in the country and have won 16 straight. They’re Division I’s only unbeaten team, have set a school record for SEC wins (10) and want to make that 11 during Thursday’s regular-season finale.
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But there are still goals on the table. The first is beating Ole Miss to give the seniors one more win at Stone Stadium. The second is winning next week’s SEC tournament (in Orange Beach, Ala., USC plays its first match at 5 p.m. Nov. 2 against the eighth or ninth seed).
The third, and most important, is clinching home-field advantage throughout the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament. While nothing is assured, being an unbeaten team ranked second in the country, even before the SEC tournament, should earn that.
“It’s our last regular-season game, but we’d love to have four more games here, especially in front of our home fans,” career assists leader Chelsea Drennan said. “Our fans are huge for us and they give us a lift.”
The focus of continuing an unbeaten season hasn’t been hard to replicate after each win. The veterans of the team reached the Elite Eight in 2014 and remember what it took to get there. The newcomers this year immediately bought in.
They’re hoping for more, beginning Thursday.
“We’ve watched the NCAAs the past few years and where we’ve had to travel to,” Smith said. “If you can put yourself in that position where you are a top seed, that’s a huge advantage and we’d be thrilled to do that.”
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USC vs. Ole Miss
Who: South Carolina (16-0-1, 10-0 SEC) vs. Ole Miss ( 9-9, 4-6 SEC)
Where: Stone Stadium
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
TV: SEC Network