The question is going to hang over the South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball team until when?
After the first time they take the court after the news Alaina Coates’ stellar season and career are finished? The first time they face a team with a tough frontcourt? At some juncture as they attempt the run a powerhouse NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed expects to make?
USC will face UNC Asheville at 5 p.m. Friday at Colonial Life Arena trying to fill the 6-foot-5 hole in the middle of the lineup. The team adapted and survived with her already missing three games with the nagging angle issues, but now this is what the team is.
Not that it changes the goal for Gamecocks star forward A’ja Wilson.
“Just attacking the paint, honestly,” Wilson said. “Whether it’s driving, whether it’s getting it in to our post players, just really pounding it inside. It’s really nothing different.
“It’s just instead of two posts, we might go one post, or we might still have two posts.”
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said not having Coates does weaken South Carolina both on the boards and in protecting the paint. But it also opens things up in terms of a more free-flowing, spaced-out offense and deploying more press defensively.
Bulldogs coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick said she’ll expect a range of looks, from the smaller unit that puts four guards around Wilson to pairing the All-American with freshman Mikiah Herbert Harrigan down low.
Coates is a big loss, no doubt, but Staley said it could do something positive for her group.
“In a lot of ways, it’s good for us because we have their attention and they know what what we need to do because of the void left,” Staley said.
The Gamecocks have come through a somewhat eventful couple weeks since they last took the floor for a game.
Staley was named the United States Olympic coach. The team lost a four-year anchor in Coates. The Gamecocks were vocally unhappy with getting placed in the Stockton regional. The combination provides a lot of options for the dreaded question of “distractions,” but USC is paying all that little mind.
“You have to compartmentalize your life,” Staley said. “You have to give certain things energy when it deserves energy, and then when it doesn’t you put the energy to what’s on your plate.
“Everything else is secondary to what we’re doing today.”
16s and 1s
For Wilson, the lessons of the team’s first Final Four run came down to discipline. That becomes decidedly important when trying to not overlook the next opponent, something that could happen with a matchup between No. 1 and 16 seeds.
“This is the time where the higher seeds may think they have it,” Wilson said. “The lower seed is like, ‘We have nothing to lose, we’re just going to go out here and win.’
“It’s anybody’s game. Basketball is a funny game and it teaches you a lot.”
Mock Kirkpatrick said her team started the year trying to push the pace, but three torn ACLs have limited that. She said the group now runs selectively, but more often takes the air out of the ball, looking for the best shots.
Should the Gamecocks advance, as all but one No. 1 seed has, they’ll face a quick turnaround to play on Sunday against either Michigan State or Arizona State.
Some coaches put the focus squarely on the next game, not looking ahead to ensure the team doesn’t feel comfortable overlooking an opponent. Staley does not subscribe to that.
“Our staff has been working 24 hours,” Staley said. “I have the scout on Michigan State and Arizona State. We’re prepared for the first and second rounds, and big picture, we’re working to get ready for the next rounds. We have to do that as a staff.”
Quote to note:
“I wanted to congratulate all the teams and welcome them to South Carolina and hope they have a tremendous time here in Columbia, except when they play us.”
- Dawn Staley