They’re playing a team, not a name or a number.
It’s a really good team, part of the most successful program in the history of the sport, but still just a team.
“I haven’t even brought that stuff up,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said, as she prepared her team for Monday’s game at No. 1 Connecticut. “We’re just trying to get another win. We’re trying to beat another good team.”
The four-time defending national champion Huskies are going for their 100th consecutive win, which is stupendous to the country but old hat to them. They beat their old record (90) to get to this point, so why should achieving 10 more matter?
That’s exactly how the opponent views it. The Gamecocks want to win this game, no question, but it’s not to avoid being No. 100. Worst-case, USC returns home in first place in the SEC, a fourth consecutive regular-season championship in its sights and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament well within its grasp. There’s also the not-so-small matter of knowing that if UConn loses once in a season, it’s probably not going to do it again to the same opponent.
USC is looking at best-case. For what it’s worth, the two closest games in UConn’s streak came this season (two points over Florida State, six over Maryland). The Gamecocks have also beaten top teams on the road this season and have no reason to fear another.
“But when it comes to Monday, it’s just about heart and competing,” forward A’ja Wilson said. “We’re at a good place in the season, we’re at a good place with this team.”
The Gamecocks expect UConn to do what everybody does to them – play zone, try to collapse on Wilson and Alaina Coates in the post and keep them from scoring. As usual, the focus is on USC’s guards – Tyasha Harris to get the ball up against the Huskies’ defense and distribute, and Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray to make shots.
What makes it difficult is UConn’s offense often overshadows how good its defense is. The Huskies take away a team’s first two options offensively, and use turnovers to get easy buckets.
“We’ve got some things in place that will allow us, if they take one or two things away, we automatically go into something else without feeling the pressure of not getting through all of our options,” Staley said.
USC experimented with a more patient offense against Auburn, accepting the Tigers’ zone defense and working the ball around until a shot opened. Sometimes that was Davis splashing a 3, sometimes that was Coates finding a lane to the basket where Harris could find her, but each worked.
The Gamecocks can play fast or slow, can score from inside and out. Staley and the team were pressure-free in practice on Sunday, knowing that while it’s a big game, it’s a game they feel very capable of winning.
“We don’t have to play perfect. We got a good team we’re taking up there,” Staley said. “You can’t play the entire tradition of a UConn. Certainly, hopefully, it will crack the code a little bit for other teams to do what we’re going to do to them to get a win.”
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No. 6 South Carolina (21-2) at No. 1 Connecticut (24-0)
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, Conn.
Radio: 107.5 FM
South Carolina’s probable starters: G Ty Harris 5-10 Fr. (5.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg); G Allisha Gray 6-0 Jr. (13.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg); G Kaela Davis 6-2 Jr. (12.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg); F A’ja Wilson 6-5 Jr. (17.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg); C Alaina Coates 6-4 Sr. (14.0 ppg, 11.5 rpg)
Connecticut’s probable starters: G Kia Nurse 6-0 Jr. (13.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G Saniya Chong 5-8 Sr. (7.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G/F Katie Lou Samuelson 6-3 So. (21.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg); F Gabby Williams 5-11 Jr. (12.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg); F Napheesa Collier 6-1 So. (19.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg)
Next game: South Carolina hosts Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. Thursday.