The South Carolina women's basketball team knows the SEC is going to present a challenge every season.
So when second-year coach Dawn Staley set up a three-game stretch against ACC foes North Carolina State, Wake Forest and North Carolina coming off a 10-day exam break and just before Christmas, she knew what she was trying to accomplish.
"I think we need wins going into our conference (season)," she said. "We need wins against opponents that are competitive like N.C. State, like Wake, like UNC. "
Including its loss to Clemson in November, the Gamecocks (4-3) will play four ACC teams during the nonconference portion of their schedule. They also played ranked teams Notre Dame, Oklahoma and San Diego State in the Paradise Jam over Thanksgiving, so the schedule has been daunting.
"For us, this is what we ask for," Staley said. "We need to challenge ourselves, and we've got a schedule to do that."
The ACC gauntlet starts today at 2 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena against a Wolfpack team (6-3) that plays relentless defense under first-year coach Kellie Harper, who replaced longtime N.C. State coach Kay Yow after Yow lost her battle with cancer last January.
Staley expects N.C. State to play the type of game USC will see from its SEC opponents. So far, Staley does not think her team, which features no seniors and seven sophomores and freshmen, has played with the intensity it needs to.
She hopes that will change beginning today. The combined record of USC's next three opponents is 19-6, with UNC ranked 11th, and Staley believes things will be much tougher for her team from here.
"They (N.C. State) go hard for 40 minutes, or however long it takes to win the basketball game," Staley said. "I think for us, our young basketball team really has a hard time staying focused for 40 minutes. I think we have the toughness to do it, but we have to do it for 40 minutes because they are going to bring it."
Reserve guard Ebony Wilson knows things have to change.
"When we get on the floor, we have to suck it up and play hard," she said.
The Gamecocks will have the comfort of playing their next two games at home: they play host to Wake Forest on Thursday before facing the Tar Heels on Dec. 20 in Myrtle Beach. Staley likes that USC has been at home since returning from the Virgin Islands on Nov. 29.
USC will not take an extended road trip until it travels to Staley's hometown of Philadelphia on Dec. 28 and 29 to play in the St. Joseph Hawk Classic.
Add in the fact USC has not played in 10 days because of the exam break, and Staley hopes her team has newfound focus.
"I thought we needed the layoff," Staley said." We played a lot of games in a short period of time. Hopefully, we'll take the floor being a different basketball team as far as being disciplined and playing defense the way we need to play it for longer stretches."