That was the hard part. South Carolina had definitely earned a break after completing a three-day sprint through the SEC tournament, capping a 31-1 season with its second straight tournament championship.
But as well as the Gamecocks were playing, Dawn Staley would just as soon have started the NCAA tournament then to keep that play going.
“We just want to bottle this up and take it forward,” she said then.
It’s tough to do in the women’s game because there is a lengthy break between the end of conference tournament weekend and the start of the NCAA tournament. By the time the Gamecocks begin their tournament, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, it will have been 12 days since USC cut the nets in Jacksonville.
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After playing perhaps its two best games of the season to beat Kentucky and Mississippi State at the SEC tournament, USC is anxious to see if it can carry that play into the only part of the season it will be judged on.
“It’s kind of like the blueprint now. We know what good basketball feels like, and what it looks like, and we know what we’re capable of,” senior Tiffany Mitchell said. “I think the Kentucky game is when we really showed we were a tough team to contend with.”
Irked by some pre-game comments from SEC network analysts that said USC could lose to the nemesis Wildcats, the Gamecocks were firing away from the tip, sinking mid-range jumpers at a clip they hadn’t approached all year. As that cooled, their defense warmed.
Point guard Khadijah Sessions was all over the floor, covering the Wildcats’ guards and diving after every low ball she saw. Center Alaina Coates was snaring rebounds, blocking shots and saving balls that seemed destined for the seats, whipping them back into her teammates’ hands.
The Wildcats shot 44.6 percent and still lost by 30. The Gamecocks had 10 steals, seven blocks and allowed a mere eight offensive rebounds. They followed with nine steals, five blocks and five allowed offensive boards against the Bulldogs. MSU star Victoria Vivians scored 26 and nobody else was in double figures.
“Honestly, I think it was the media and everybody just saying that we weren’t playing really well, and that we had the possibility of losing to Kentucky, and that just didn’t sit well with us,” Mitchell said. “We have a team full of competitors and once we heard that, it kind of just lit a fire under us, and I think that fire’s still going to be there.”
The Gamecocks begin with Jacksonville, making its first tournament appearance, and would take on the George Washington-Kansas State winner on Sunday if they win. They know how tough the road to the Final Four can be, but they also know what they’re capable of.
“The play that we did in the SEC tournament is going to definitely trickle over into the NCAA tournament,” Sessions said. “We want to go back to the Final Four. We know how that feels, and that feeling was unreal, and we want to feel it again. You’re going to see an unbelievable game from our seniors, because we’re playing for something special and we don’t want our season to be cut short.”
Staley might want to call in a few favors from her friends in the broadcasting industry. Some words casting doubt on the Gamecocks’ chances could yield another wonderful result.
“It’s in their best bet not to talk about us,” Mitchell said, “because we might give out another 30-piece.”
Staley a finalist
For the third straight year, Staley has been named a finalist for the Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year award, the Atlanta Tipoff Club announced on Wednesday. Staley joins UConn’s Geno Auriemma, Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and Oregon State’s Scott Rueck on the list of finalists. The winner will be announced April 4.
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NCAA Women’s Tournament
What: Columbia Regional
Who: Jacksonville (22-10) at South Carolina (31-1)
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
First game: George Washington (26-6) vs. Kansas State (18-12), 5 p.m.
It takes a thief
USC’s leaders in steals:
1. Khadijah Sessions 63
2. Tiffany Mitchell 56
3. Bianca Cuevas 42
4. Alaina Coates 38
5. A’ja Wilson 22