South Carolina's women's basketball team finishes the ACC portion of its schedule today. So far, Dawn Staley has gotten exactly what she was looking for.
The Gamecocks have played three ACC foes and more than held their own. After a loss on the road against Clemson, USC has victories against North Carolina State and Wake Forest. The biggest challenge comes today.
They travel to Myrtle Beach for the Carolina's Challenge against No. 9 North Carolina in resuming a rivalry that has not been played since 2003. The teams had played four straight December games in Myrtle Beach but put the series on hiatus until this year.
This is the type of challenge Staley wanted to present her team before they embark on the brutal stretch of SEC play that begins Jan. 3 against LSU.
""For us, this is what we ask for," Staley said before this stretch of three games. "We need to challenge ourselves, and we've got a schedule to do that."
The Tar Heels (8-1) present a sizeable hurdle. UNC has been ranked in the preseason Top 10 for the sixth consecutive year.
But this group is younger than most recent Tar Heel squads. They have eight freshmen and sophomores and are playing without All-American candidate Jessica Breland. The senior forward was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma during the summer and has not played this season.
South Carolina sophomore guard La'Keisha Sutton feels the Gamecocks (6-3) need to focus on their game plan instead of trying to match their opponent.
"I guess the biggest challenge is just coming together," Sutton said. "We always say we're all we've got and just execute whatever coach Staley tells us to do. We need to play for 40 minutes or more."
The Gamecocks had 24 turnovers against Wake Forest. Behind the guard play of Italee Lucas, Cetera DeGraffenreid and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, the Tar Heels force 26 a game.
"They force a lot of turnovers, so that is something we're really looking at," Staley said. "We've got to play discipline basketball. If we can slow the game down a little bit, control the tempo a little bit and get after like we did. We just want to put ourselves in the position at the end of the game to be able to win it."
Valerie Nainima (17.7 ppg) and Kelsey Bone (15.0 ppg) lead four Gamecocks averaging double figures. Since losing two in a row to ranked teams in the Paradise Jam over Thanksgiving, the Gamecocks have four wins in a row. That is the longest winning streak in Staley's two seasons.
Plus, the Gamecocks could have Charenee Stephens back after missing the past three games with a left knee sprain.
"I think with how we're playing, we're moving in the right direction," Staley said. "This is another opportunity to play one of the top teams in the country. We've got experience to draw on, so hopefully it will help us."