Dawn Staley badly wanted Alaina Coates. She knew what the 6-foot-4 center could bring to her basketball team. She knew that even after winning 50 games and playing in two NCAA tournaments over two seasons, Coates would be the player to weld that last missing link to the chain of elite South Carolina basketball.
Staley was right, as Coates has certainly been a major piece of the Gamecocks’ 28-4 season, which picks up again Tuesday night against Oregon State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Coates was named consensus SEC Freshman of the Year, SEC Co-Sixth Woman of the Year and was the only rookie in the league to rank in the Top 25 of scoring and Top 20 of rebounding. She’s been very, very good.
But she can be better.
“I did put her in the game and I took her out really quick,” Staley explained of her quick-trigger yank-and-reinstall of Coates midway through Sunday’s first half. “I just wanted to get her mad, I wanted her to have some fire in her. I just told her, ‘I need you to dominate. I need you to dominate the rest of this game.’”
It’s not that Coates was being lazy – quite the opposite. Her natural talent and game will be better than almost everyone she faces from night to night.
Staley just wants Coates to sometimes kick it into that extra gear. In the tournament, where it’s win or go home, she has to be in extra gear as much as possible.
Coates wound up scoring 13 points, yanking 16 rebounds and blocking four shots. Working against Cal State Northridge’s height, she fouled out Camille Mahlknecht, who had been a handful with four blocked shots of her own, three on Aleighsa Welch.
It was a great performance. Staley wants a duplicate Tuesday against an Oregon State squad boasting four players at 6-foot-3 and a starting center at 6-foot-6.
“She just makes sure that I dominate in the post,” Coates said before practice on Monday. “Make sure I’m running the floor. Make sure I’m pushing our opponents up the floor. Make sure I’m playing solid defense.”
There’s also the other motto Staley is forever stressing to her freshman, as assistant coach Nikki McCray relayed one more time to Coates – “Time to bring us home.”
In the past two seasons, USC didn’t lose many games but when it did, it was usually because the other team had that big girl in the middle. It wasn’t a lack of effort – as Staley is fond of saying, teams didn’t out-hustle USC, they out-talented USC, because they had a player towering over all of the Gamecocks.
With Coates, the Gamecocks have made the leap from good to elite. She has given USC that extra piece – teams can no longer plan to just defend the Gamecocks’ guards because they knew the posts weren’t going to be targeted.
Staley keeps reminding Coates of the new game. As good as she is, sometimes she still slips into high-school mode.
“Sometimes, Alaina has to be jolted into the moment,” Staley said. “She’s young. We have to jolt her into playing up to her full potential, because once she does, we look like a different basketball team.”
Coates doesn’t mind. It’s why she picked USC. She also recognizes that as fabulous as her freshman year has been, she won’t be thinking about that if the Gamecocks don’t keep winning.
She’ll only be thinking about what more she could have done.
“Sometimes, it’s me getting scored on, sometimes it’s getting my blocked shot,” Coates said. “Just something that happens to me a lot will jump me into the game.
“I kind of just had to talk to myself and make sure I stayed focused. Once I was able to get in there and was in there for a couple of plays, I was fine.”
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