It’s glowing, way out there in Dallas, and South Carolina’s players can see it. Call it opportunity or the lights glancing off that simple wood and chrome trophy that means so, so much, but the Gamecocks all know it’s there.
This season might be the best chance for USC and Dawn Staley to grab the one prize they don’t have – the national championship.
“We definitely feel that we have a Final Four team,” preseason All-American A’ja Wilson said at SEC Tipoff. “It’s definitely a goal.”
It was the goal of the last two years -- well, a goal that seemed reasonable or even likely. The Gamecocks had that goal ever since Staley took over, but it wasn’t until that first group of battle-hardened seniors produced an NCAA Tournament berth, and then Staley mined local diamonds in recruiting, that the Final Four became freely talked about.
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USC reached it in 2015. It knows it could have -- should have?-- gone in 2016, but let a Sweet 16 game against Syracuse get away. This year, with the Gamecocks again in the nation’s top 5 and four-time defending national champ Connecticut losing three starters, this is the time.
The Huskies are always elite, but perhaps they’re not as dominant. Notre Dame, Baylor, Louisville, Maryland, Ohio State … all are eager to usurp UConn.
And there’s USC, blessed with the formidable 1-2 post punch of Wilson and Alaina Coates. High-scoring transfers Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis fill in for Tiffany Mitchell and Asia Dozier, while Bianca Cuevas-Moore takes over at point guard after understudying Khadijah Sessions.
With the recruiting class Staley signed and several returnees from last year’s 33-2 season, USC has an absurdly talented team with veterans in all the right places.
That might be why Staley loaded her nonconference schedule with many of the nation’s top teams, starting with No. 7 Ohio State on Monday. She wants this team challenged early and throughout the SEC with what it’s going to face in March, which like last year, is where this team will be judged.
Last year was a magnificent season and a disappointing end. The hope is the Gamecocks learned that everything – practice, game and meeting – is geared toward avoiding the sting of last year’s conclusion and making sure they are the last team standing this year.
Starting Monday in Columbus.
“We get a good chance to test our team, the pulse of the team, the identity of the team,” Staley said. “It’s going to be very similar to what we’ll face throughout the first part of the nonconference season.”
The Buckeyes fell 88-80 to USC in Columbia last season despite 36 points from star Kelsey Mitchell, Staley crediting the Colonial Life Arena crowd for the victory. OSU lost three starters, but like USC has recently done, filled in the gaps with transfers.
Stephanie Mavunga (North Carolina) and Sierra Calhoun (Duke) shed their Tobacco Road rivalry to team up at OSU. Linnae Harper (Kentucky) becomes eligible after the first semester.
Mavunga and Gray will reunite after being away for a year. Their last real game, coincidentally, was UNC’s 2015 Sweet 16 loss to South Carolina.
“It’s definitely going to be nice to see Steph again on the court,” Gray said. “During the game, of course we’re going to be opponents, so you have no friends on the court. But after the game, it’ll be pretty nice to be able to reunite with her again.”
Staley wasn’t pleased with her team’s defense in its exhibition win, but also realized it’s the cost of new players in new roles. She wants to play faster this year, although the Gamecocks’ bread and butter is still getting the ball to Wilson and Coates, and the Buckeyes’ similar system could be beneficial.
It’s a different team, but a similar one in terms of projected results. As the Gamecocks found out last year, the only result that matters is the one in March – or April, where they hope to earn a result.
One they can see shimmering in Texas.
“They’ve been working hard. It’s them trying to get to know us and us trying to get to know them, and where they fit in and where their strengths are on both sides of the ball,” Staley said. “It’s kind of a cool puzzle to fit together.”
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NO. 4 SOUTH CAROLINA (0-0) at NO. 7 OHIO STATE (1-0)
When: 6 p.m. Monday
Where: Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio
TV: Big Ten Network Plus
Radio: 107.5 FM
South Carolina’s probable starters: G Bianca Cuevas-Moore 5-6 Jr. (6.7 ppg, 1.7 rpg); G Allisha Gray 6-0 Jr. (15.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg)#; G Kaela Davis 6-2 Jr. (19.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg)#; F A’ja Wilson 6-5 Jr. (16.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg); C Alaina Coates 6-4 Sr. (12.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg)*
Ohio State’s probable starters: G Kelsey Mitchell 5-8 Jr. (18.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg), G Sierra Calhoun 6-0 So. (13.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg), G Asia Doss 5-7 Jr. (7.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg), F Shayla Cooper 6-2 Sr. (12.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg), F Stephanie Mavunga 6-3 Jr. (15.0 ppg, 14.0 rpg)
Next game: South Carolina hosts Hampton at 3 p.m. on Sunday.
* 2015-16 statistics
# 2014-15 statistics