David Cloninger

Gamecocks still rounding into final product, even as impressive wins mount

It’s the price for winning so much for so long. When a team isn’t playing like those teams before, it becomes a problem instead of what it is – the cycle.

USC coach Dawn Staley never said this team would be as monstrously overwhelming as her previous two. She knew she was losing three starters who each started for most of three years, including a three-time All-American and a point guard.

But when you’ve gone 67-5 over two years and have won 37 of 38 games against SEC competition, the narrative becomes one of invincibility. Yes, losing Tiffany Mitchell and Khadijah Sessions and Asia Dozier would hurt, but it’s not like Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray and the freshman class were the first six women Staley saw on the street and signed them to scholarships.

It would take time for the freshmen to develop. Gray and Davis were stars at their previous schools, but they hadn’t played in over a year. Of course they wouldn’t be nearly as up to speed as they need to be in March by December, because there’s only so much one can learn in practice.

So when they weren’t tightening on defense early, but still whipping Ohio State and Louisville, nobody could really understand. It took the loss at Duke to illustrate the point, and from then on, USC’s issues glared as the wins kept notching.

“Just still thinking back to the Duke loss,” center Alaina Coates said, after USC overcame another rough start to dispatch No. 9 UCLA on Sunday. “The defense from that game, that’s something that we’ve gotten better from, but we haven’t taken a great leap from.”

That’s what Staley was trying to make her team understand from the get-go. She knew they could score from any spot on the floor and often, that would be enough. But there would be times where shots wouldn’t fall or fouls mounted, and that’s when the team would truly be tested.

That was in the first half against the Bruins. Bianca Cuevas-Moore was trying to outplay Jordin Canada at her game – speed – and while she was getting to the rim, she couldn’t get the ball through it. Davis, who shed her year’s worth of sitting with 37 points at Ohio State, finished Sunday 1-of-13 from the field.

The defense, when it could get set, was pretty stout. But the Bruins wouldn’t let USC get set all that much, trying to run, run, run past USC’s trailers so Canada could get to the rim. The Gamecocks had the right idea of doubling Canada. Doniyah Cliney was playing her finest minutes of the year and hounding Canada off her spots, but when every loose ball came up blue and gold, UCLA was going to convert some of those chances.

The halftime plan? Confidence. Staley felt a second-half explosion from her frontcourt was imminent after Wilson and Coates sat on the bench most of the second half. So just get them the ball.

USC did, Canada had to sit with her fourth foul, Gamecocks made a run. Win.

“Jordin was definitely their engine, so the whole thing was to shut down Canada,” Gray said. “Once she got in foul trouble, it was kind of just go from there.”

Staley shrugged. Some things need to be tightened. Some are just where they need to be. It was USC’s third top-10 win of the season and Sunday was the only one of them at home.

The one loss of the season, on the road to an unranked opponent, still rankles. But as the outsiders have learned to accept a different brand of winning USC women’s basketball, Staley’s team has as well.

“It’s a mark of a pretty good team that can play anywhere, any time, and get wins,” Staley said. “But not everybody’s going to be top-10. It’s those other competitive games, like Duke, that our players don’t take as seriously that we have to be concerned about.”

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