“I’m not going to get into it. I think we all saw what took place.”
That’s how South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley started to talk about the first time her Gamecocks and Missouri faced off this season on Jan. 7, a chippy, controversial 83-74 loss for USC.
But as the Gamecocks and Tigers prepare to face off again Sunday at 6 p.m., this time at Colonial Life Arena, there’s no way Staley, her players or anyone on Missouri’s sideline can avoid the questions about that meeting three weeks ago.
If you ask Missouri, it was a gritty, tough, intense matchup in which Mizzou was able to frustrate South Carolina’s post players, A’ja Wilson and Alexis Jennings, and star Sophie Cunningham came back from injury to lead her Tigers to the upset win.
Ask South Carolina fans, however, and it was nothing more than highway robbery, as Missouri hacked away at Wilson and Jennings, who could not protect themselves without being whistled for cheap fouls.
Even Staley, who was clearly furious after the matchup but stayed more diplomatic than some commenters on social media, has no doubt that Missouri crossed the line at times.
“I think there were some things out there that weren’t basketball, that weren’t basketball plays,” Staley said Friday when asked if she thought Missouri played dirty in the first game. “And if we can clean up those parts of the game, you’ll get a great game from us (on Sunday). You’re not going to get a game in which you have (Wilson) sitting on the bench for 21 minutes, you have Alexis Jennings sitting on the bench for 20 minutes.
“And I get that you want to take key people out of the game. We want to do that. If we get the opportunity to get Sophie out of the game, yes, we’re going to try to do that, but within the confines of the rules of the game.”
Especially physical plays from Cunningham and other Mizzou players have made the rounds on social media, and Staley is not the first to suggest that Missouri plays in an unsporting way — Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy made headlines last year when she called the Tigers a “dirty, dirty team.”
But Missouri coach Robin Pingeton has fiercely defended her players from those accusations.
“I don’t think we’re a dirty team,” Pingeton said after hearing Williams-Flournoy’s accusation. “Do I think we’re a strong team? Yeah. Do I think we’ve got a lot of toughness and grit and play with some innards and those kind of things? Absolutely. I think we play with passion. But I don’t associate that with being dirty. We don’t teach that. We don’t encourage that. I think it’s SEC basketball. It’s physical basketball.”
By SEC standards, Missouri never has been the conference’s cleanest team when it comes to fouling — under Pingeton, the Tigers never have cracked the top five of the league for fewest personal fouls per game. But they’ve also never finished last, and so far through the 2017-2018, they’ve averaging their fewest whistles ever, although they still rank outside the top 70 in the country.
Still, within Mizzou Arena and throughout Columbia, Missouri, Cunningham is considered a golden girl, and she and her teammates are stars. To the Tiger faithful, South Carolina’s complaints about the first game were the sour grapes of a team that was outplayed.
In Columbia, South Carolina, however, Cunningham and crew will go from celebrities to public enemies, and the same type of physical play they used against USC the first time will likely drive the crowd at Colonial Life Arena into a frenzy.
“I think our fans will give the extra stuff, and we’ll let them feed us the energy that we need to win the game.” Staley said.
Staley also said she has spoken to the SEC about the officiating in this Sunday’s game after she ripped the conference for reassigning two referees who had worked last season’s matchup between the two teams to the Jan. 8 game. South Carolina was whistled for a season-high 26 fouls against Missouri.
“Yeah, (the SEC) communicated, and like I said before, we all have to do better. It’s not like it’s just the officials,” Staley said. “We gotta do better as a coaching staff to put our players in positions to be able to win through playing whatever style of play we need to play.”
But whether Missouri comes in and plays physically or tries to pull back and finesse its way to a third straight win, and regardless of how the officials call the game, Staley said she believes that first game will benefit her players.
“Once you go through it, you’re prepped. So we’ll be able to make better adjustments to whatever’s allowed out there,” she said. “I want my team prepared to play whatever style. If it comes to that, they have a taste of the limits in which they can go, and if not, we’ll just play our style of play, which is just, we just try to execute on both sides of the ball and we keep it within the lines.”
Missouri women’s basketball
Personal fouls per game
2017-2018 (through 20 games)