Almost exactly a month ago, South Carolina women’s basketball blew a five-point lead to Mississippi State, ending any realistic chance of continuing the Gamecocks’ streak of four regular season SEC titles.
This Sunday, USC will get another crack at the Bulldogs, this time in Nashville, Tennessee, for the SEC tournament championship. MSU is still undefeated, a perfect 32-0. South Carolina limped into the postseason with star A’ja Wilson sidelined by vertigo, but has won its first two games of the tournament rather easily against ranked foes.
Mississippi State is undoubtedly the favorite to take home the title and snap South Carolina’s other championship streak of three SEC tournament titles — one projection has Vic Schaefer’s squad beating Dawn Staley’s team by 11 — but inside the USC locker room, confidence was high after the Gamecocks soundly defeated No. 19 Georgia, 71-49.
Specifically, Staley and her players pointed to three factors they believe will boost their chances.
Peaking and gelling
To hear the Gamecocks tell it, they’ve saved their best basketball of the season until now, even with the high number of turnovers they continue to commit.
“I definitely feel like we're peaking at the right time. Everybody's gelling, everybody's getting into their roles and finding what they can do best for our team in order to be successful,” redshirt junior forward Alexis Jennings said.
Part of that development process, they say, has been the maturation and growth of the team’s younger players, as the freshmen wrap up their first collegiate season and gradually become more like sophomores, Staley said.
“Towards the end of the season, second part of the season, we got to know our tendencies and we know what we like to do,” sophomore guard Tyasha Harris said.
An opponent ‘we know like the back of our hand’
From that first loss to Mississippi State on Feb. 5, South Carolina learned about “mental focus and mental toughness,” according to senior forward A’ja Wilson.
“We were in it. There wasn't a point where we weren't in it,” Wilson said. “So our thing is just maintaining focus for 40 minutes. This is a team we've seen before, they've seen us before, so there's nothing to hide.”
Or, as junior Doniyah Cliney put it, “we know this team like the back of our hand.”
Of course, that’s not just based off one February game — this will be the third consecutive year South Carolina and Mississippi State have faced off for the SEC tournament title. But that particular loss is one that stays with Cliney .
“That win would have been kinda huge for us,” she said.
For several stretches of play Saturday evening, Staley deployed a three-forward lineup with some combination of Wilson, Jennings, sophomore Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and freshman Lele Grissett. It’s a look that South Carolina has used on occasion this season, but not as much in big games against highly-ranked opponents. That may change Sunday.
“We’re playing different lineups, and (the players) are embracing their roles. ... I just like the energy we possess out there playing a different type of lineup,” Staley said.
Specifically, Staley also said she was fine with having a few extra turnovers that result from more post players handling the ball, as long as her bigger lineup provides an energy that she likes.
And against Mississippi State, a bigger rotation may create matchup problems, as the Bulldogs typically use four guards around center Teaira McCowan.
“What we need to do is keep the game close and put (Mississippi State) in positions where it’s unfamiliar for them this year, just having, possession by possession, having to figure out a way to score,” Staley said.
South Carolina women’s basketball plays Mississippi State at 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday for the SEC tournament title. The game will be televised on ESPN2.