Anyone looking on Monday for a repeat of the off-court drama South Carolina women’s basketball has recently experienced was sorely disappointed.
When the Gamecocks faced Mississippi State on the road in a nationally televised clash of top-10 teams, all the ingredients were there for another week of bad blood between SEC foes — a national title rematch, a sold-out, raucous crowd of nearly 11,000, a Bulldog team that had lost 11 in a row to USC, an unsportsmanlike foul on each team.
Instead, Dawn Staley and her MSU counterpart, Vic Schaefer, couldn’t stop complimenting each other.
“They’re a great team, no doubt about it. They’re our league’s best team, the record shows it, the rankings show it. They did a great job,” Staley said after losing 67-53 to No. 2 Mississippi State, now 24-0 and in line to win the first SEC regular-season title in program history.
“They are so good. Dawn’s got her a heck of a team, another top-10 team. They’re so hard to defend in so many ways,” Schaefer said just a little while later.
When the Gamecocks stepped on the floor of Humphrey Coliseum to warm up before Monday’s game, they were met with loud boos from the 10,794 in attendance. Given all the scrutiny of fan conduct between Missouri and South Carolina as of late, one might have expected A’ja Wilson and her teammates to be tense in such an environment. Instead, they laughed.
“It was good. A good atmosphere, reminded me of Colonial Life. It was just the opposite of being at home,” Wilson said after the game.
Staley also praised the atmosphere and issued a challenge for the fans in attendance to come back, a message she echoed on Twitter.
“I’m happy for (Mississippi State) that they could perform that way in front of all those people. Because there are some people that haven’t watched women’s basketball before that were in the building. I just hope it was not in vain. They got to get back into the gym and support this team,” Staley said.
And when reporters asked Staley about the difference between the Mississippi State team that lost to her three times last season and this one, she said there wasn’t much of one at all.
“I think they’re very similar. (Schaefer’s) running the same sets, he’s doing the same types of things. I think the biggest difference is they’re definitely more efficient offensively. They’re knocking down shots, whereas, at times (last year), they struggled to score,” Staley said.
Not to be outdone, Schaefer also said South Carolina was very similar to the team that won a national title last year and refused to say that his players were tougher than the Gamecocks.
“We lost to South Carolina (last year) because they out-toughed us. And I don’t know if we out-toughed them tonight, but I think we matched their toughness,” Schaefer said.
“They are always such a tough, hard-nosed basketball team, extremely competitive, and Dawn was that way as a player, she’s been that way as a coach, and you know you’re going to get that with her. She’s going to expose you. She’s going to attack your weaknesses.”
With their victory, the Bulldogs seemed poised to win the conference’s regular-season title, halting the Gamecocks’ streak of four consecutive seasons atop the SEC. However, they could face off again in the SEC tournament in Nashville, roughly a month from now. And if that happens, Schaefer said he’ll see this regular-season matchup as an indicator of another close one.
“Hats off to South Carolina. They’re a tough, tough out,” he said Monday.