David Cloninger

Cloninger: Second-half decision starts run to clinch title

Dawn Staley has won 55 of her past 58 games.
Dawn Staley has won 55 of her past 58 games. tglantz@thestate.com

Dawn Staley has always been one to stick to her guns. She’ll let her team play through bad stretches, adopting the Dean Smith approach when it comes to using timeouts. She’ll stick with her rotations when folks are clamoring for her to do something to shake it up.

Science or stubbornness, it usually works. At last count, Staley has won 55 of her past 58 games.

The 55th came with a departure from the norm.

The Gamecocks weren’t playing badly at Texas A&M on Sunday. Their defense was denying the Aggies’ mid-range shooters and when A&M decided to get cute and blanket Tiffany Mitchell, USC shrugged and said, "OK, we’ll get the ball to A’ja." That resulted in a first-quarter lead.

It was short-lived. A&M scored 15 straight points while the Gamecocks didn’t score for over eight minutes. It was nothing that hitting a few shots wouldn’t cure – Wilson missed some chippies, Khadijah Sessions was pulling up for jumpers and Mitchell clanked four 3-pointers – but it was slightly concerning to those looking at conference championships and a rather big game eight days from now.

So Staley went with what worked. She knew that while USC would still have a hefty lead in the conference standings, win or lose, a win was a whole lot prettier. The usual starting five began the second half – and ended it.

Outside of Tina Roy replacing Asia Dozier due to injury, Staley stuck with her starters the entire second half. She needed her vets on the floor, and that was what turned the game. Mitchell began stealing balls and laying them into the hoop, Alaina Coates turned in yet another double-double and while Wilson was the youngest player in a black uniform, she was the best.

Bianca Cuevas, Jatarie White, Doniyah Cliney and Sarah Imovbioh are parts of this year’s team and Staley will most likely return to the usual rotation going forward. As USC attempts to end this season the way it’s used to doing so – lifting an SEC trophy and running deep into the NCAA tournament – the bench will be vital, especially if Dozier is out for a prolonged period.

But Sunday, the veterans needed to take that game. Staley’s been around long enough and known these players long enough that Mitchell wasn’t going to take a 1-for-7 first half lying down, or that Sessions wouldn’t impact the game after some early yips. She knows, and the team knows, that this is the time of year where feelings shouldn’t be hurt over lack of minutes as long as a win is recorded.

Seven games to go in the SEC. Yet Staley started chiseling the first letters onto the championship trophy with her decision on Sunday.

NOTE: USC didn’t mention Dozier’s injury in its post-game write-up. Not even "will be re-evaluated in Columbia." In this age of controlling the message – and especially when nobody on the team could definitely say what’s wrong – this is what we have to accept.

I’m sure I’m not alone by saying that USC is hopeful the injury isn’t serious. While Dozier never dented the stat sheets, that’s the kind of player a championship team needs. Not in it for the points or glory, but doing the unseen things to win. Not many better players than Dozier when it comes to sinking a late free throw for the victory.

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