Dawn Staley made sure her players knew about it. She mentioned the letdown of last year, when South Carolina’s sizzling regular season chilled when it needed to be at its most fiery.
Talent has its place, and the Gamecocks have oodles of it. But they’ll need more than that if they want to get where they want to go. They’ll need heart, and desire, and want.
In short, they’ll need what No. 13 Kentucky had in a 67-56 defeat of USC on Sunday, costing the Gamecocks sole possession of the SEC regular-season crown.
“We wake up tomorrow and we try to get back at it,” Staley said. “It deflates you, but you do have to reflect on winning 27 out of 29 games. I’m quite sure a lot of people would want to sit where we sit right now.”
USC is still the SEC champion, but so is Tennessee. The Gamecocks are still the No. 1 seed in next week’s SEC tournament, but were paddled all over Memorial Coliseum on Sunday. A No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament was thought to be all but cemented – a 16-0 SEC season would have seen to that.
Now there are a lot of questions at the time of year when there is little time for answers.
“We know we have a lot at stake with the SEC tournament coming up, so we’re not going to try to put our heads down with this loss,” Tiffany Mitchell said. “We have to capture this feeling and take it into the tournament.”
USC (27-2, 15-1 SEC) shot 32.3 percent from the field and turned it over 20 times. The Gamecocks were tied in rebounding by a smaller, thinner team. Their post game of Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates combined for six points, two turnovers, three fouls and what seemed like four dozen missed layups. Reigning SEC Player of the Year Mitchell, a top candidate to repeat the honor, was 3-of-8 for eight points and fouled out.
Clanked bunnies and flubbed handles became Kentucky points, and on a day where the Wildcats (21-8, 10-6) didn’t shoot particularly well (31.7 percent). The biggest difference was the Gamecocks were missing their biggest weapon, the one player who when Kentucky was embarking on a run would draw a line and say, “No more.”
Aleighsa Welch played, but was suffering from a stomach bug. Without her capacity to do anything it took to win, USC had scarce replacements. Only A’ja Wilson played anything close to a complete game, the freshman likely locking up SEC Freshman of the Year with a 16-point, 19-rebound and six-block performance.
But as much talent as the Gamecocks had on their bench, it meant nothing without exploiting it. USC was no stranger to how Kentucky likes to play defense, and accepted it without much of a fight; turnovers and missed shots became a five-point halftime-deficit and a seven-minute drought without a field goal to start the second half had the game on the verge of a blowout.
USC cut it to seven points with less than seven minutes to play as the Wildcats went cold, but still couldn’t make it count. Jennifer O’Neill aced two free throws – Kentucky was 27-of-35 from the line while the Gamecocks were 10-of-20 – and then Khadijah Sessions turned it over. Olivia Gaines missed a 3-pointer, Sessions stole the rebound from Jelleah Sidney, shot beside the basket – and missed again.
“We just have to make shots,” Staley said. “I thought we got ourselves back in the game and then we fell trap to just missing point-blank range layups with no defense around. You fight to get back and you miss those type of layups, it deflates you.”
The SEC tournament has USC in the top half of the bracket and Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi State in the bottom. The Gamecocks would have to play only one of those to win their first SEC tournament, but Staley wasn’t celebrating.
Her team didn’t have the fight that took it to 27 wins in 28 games before Sunday. It was the first time all season that USC looked lost – against Connecticut, the Gamecocks knew they lost to a better team that played its best game of the year.
It was hard to say that again when Kentucky shot worse than USC and had already lost to the Gamecocks once this year.
“We’ve got to win three games. Three teams in the SEC. Doesn’t matter who,” Staley said. “Got to get our mindsets, since we’re sharing the regular-season title, to get something that’s outright.”