The banner will say “Champions.” No matter what happens on Sunday, when South Carolina unveils the new banner before next season, it will read “2014-15 SEC champions.”
The No. 2 Gamecocks still want to make sure there isn’t any doubt.
“You don’t want to share, especially when you’re in control, full control of your own destiny when it comes down to that,” senior Aleighsa Welch said on Friday. “We don’t want to settle for just being co-champions.”
USC (27-1, 15-0 SEC) clinched the title with a win over Mississippi State, but Tennessee could still claim the same title. If the Gamecocks lose at No. 13 Kentucky on Sunday and the Lady Vols beat Vanderbilt, each team will finish 15-1 in the SEC and be named regular-season champion.
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There would be no “co-champion” listed on any banner, but there would be two trophies distributed. The Gamecocks clinched the top seed in next week’s SEC tournament due to beating Tennessee, but the tiebreaker is only used for tournament seeding – if there are two, four, eight teams with the same record at the end of the regular season, all are considered regular-season champs.
USC beat the Lady Vols and everybody else in the league, but could still lose a piece of the title. The Gamecocks, as unselfish a team in the country with their talent and ability to spread individual wealth, are greedy as they head to Kentucky.
It’s one thing to be champ, and quite another to be undisputed, as they were last year.
There have been 16 other undefeated SEC regular-season champs, but only one (Tennessee, 2011) went 16-0. The Gamecocks are trying to become the second against a very different Wildcats team than the one they beat 68-60 on Jan. 11, and one that will have the emotional lift of honoring its seniors before the game.
Kentucky played in Columbia without top on-the-ball defender Bria Goss, who was nursing a thumb injury, and lost Janee Thompson during the game to a dislocated ankle. Since, Goss has returned and sophomore Makayla Epps has begun to fill the bucket, scoring 42 points in a double-overtime win over Mississippi State.
USC will have to deal with a smaller, quicker team that loves to press for 40 minutes and are devilish in transition. The Gamecocks’ head of the defensive snake, guard Khadijah Sessions, spoke of trying to disrupt the Wildcats’ offense and keep Epps from exploding.
“She’s been playing wonderful,” Sessions said. “I think I have a big task to do, but I think I’m ready to take on that challenge. I take pride in my defense, so we’re just going to see what happens (Sunday).”
USC is motivated by its memory of not playing as sharply as it had during the end of last season. Coach Dawn Staley has been sure to mention it publicly and privately.
She also reflected on what a ride it’s been, from winning two SEC games in her first year to standing on the cusp of perfection in her seventh. Talent certainly contributed, but Staley also learned what it took to survive, then succeed, in the SEC.
“When you play in our league and you keep playing the same people, you figure out ways in which you increase your chances of winning,” Staley said. “Our league has constantly gotten better, and when you have that competition, you figure out ways to be successful.”