David Cloninger

Cloninger: No rest for the Gamecocks’ weary

VIDEO: Dawn Staley after SEC-clinching win over Georgia

2.18.16. South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley reacts to the team's victory over Georgia at Colonial Life Arena.
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2.18.16. South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley reacts to the team's victory over Georgia at Colonial Life Arena.

I figured 13-3, maybe 12-4.

That wasn’t for South Carolina, that was for whatever team would win the SEC this year. I certainly knew the Gamecocks had a better-than-average shot of winning their third straight regular-season championship, due to their returning talent, but I also knew just how vital the trio of seniors that left last year’s Final Four participant was. I figured USC would be right there in the final weekend of SEC play, but the league was so good and had improved so much that whoever emerged with the trophy would still have a few losses.

And yet, here sits USC, with a roster that looks like one of the first 15 minutes’ teenagers in a “Friday the 13th” sequel, 13-0 and so far out in front that second-place Texas A&M needs a telescope to see the Gamecocks’ tail lights. Despite not having as much depth – especially with injuries and defections and whatever Bianca Cuevas did to get herself benched on Thursday – and not the kind of “oomph” somebody like Aleighsa Welch could provide, the Gamecocks are closing in on that 16-0 SEC mark that was so close last year.

The games haven’t been as clean or as crisp as Dawn Staley would like, but there’s that old expression – “Ain’t no such thing as an ugly win.” USC has found ways to keep winning, to discover answers when the chips are down, and that can really pay off as the season progresses.

That’s the looming question facing this team – will it be deep enough to get back to the Final Four, and then take the final two steps? At full strength, the Gamecocks have 11 players. I realize UConn leans on seven at most, but that’s UConn. Staley has always constantly rotated and she’ll want to keep doing that, but will everyone be fresh enough to last through the next month and a half?

Here’s the quandary. With the SEC title safely in hand, USC could use the last three games of the regular season as an exhibition schedule. Rest the starters, work on some new things, fine-tune the old things, and if you lose, who cares, you already got the championship, right?

That won’t happen, and it’s not because Staley and the team want to be gluttons and become the second 16-0 team in league history. That could be sacrificed, but a No. 1 seed in the closest regional to home can’t.

Notre Dame, like USC only losing to UConn thus far, is also eyeing that Lexington Regional. Each team wants that as a place its fans can get to, because with Bridgeport (UConn) and Dallas (Baylor) off the table, there aren’t going to be a lot of folks who will go to Sioux Falls, S.D. The Irish are still in a tight conference race and play a good Florida State team on the road this weekend, before finishing with the two worst teams in the league. The Gamecocks have the three worst teams in their league remaining.

Each team has to keep winning. USC would probably have the edge today, but if it slips in the SEC tournament and Notre Dame wins the ACC, who knows what happens?

It wouldn’t be advisable for Staley to tell her troops to take it easy anyway, since once they get in the habit of doing so, it’s hard to stop. With that top seed up for grabs, they have no other choice but to keep fighting.

They should have a full bench for Monday’s game at Alabama, but it’s going to be a three-game week as the regular season ends. After that comes a nice break – USC ends on a Sunday, doesn’t play in Jacksonville until Friday – and then a nice longer break. The NCAA women’s tournament won’t start for 11 days after the end of the SEC tournament.

Khadijah Sessions put it best. It’s February, the senior said, and everybody’s tired. But champions find a way to push through it.

USC has one championship in hand and would like to rest. But it knows that the champions it’s chasing aren’t going to take anything easy, so why should they?

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