David Cloninger

Staley’s Gamecocks not the same team, but one better

Coach Dawn Staley and members of the Gamecocks talk with fans during a pep rally Monday at the USC Alumni Center. The team leaves Wednesday for the SEC tournament in Jacksonville, Fla.
Coach Dawn Staley and members of the Gamecocks talk with fans during a pep rally Monday at the USC Alumni Center. The team leaves Wednesday for the SEC tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. tglantz@thestate.com

Walking out of Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum this time last year, I echoed Dawn Staley in her postgame – “Let one get away.”

South Carolina had just lost to the Wildcats to conclude the regular season. It didn’t cost the Gamecocks anything – they still had the top tournament seed and the regular-season championship, although a Tennessee team USC beat claimed a piece of it – but their pride was wounded.

They freely talked about 16-0. How they wanted to send their seniors out with a piece of history. And don’t think for a second it wouldn’t have tasted sweeter being obtained on the court of what’s become their biggest rival.

It was no shame to not do it, but they thought what I did – that was a lost opportunity. Better team, better talent, better focus for another try was being ignored by a simple fact: It’s hard to win, and even harder to go undefeated in a league as tough as the SEC.

As said before, I thought whoever won the title this year would have two or three losses. The SEC got so much better, and while USC returned a lot of the talent that had gotten it to 15-1, it didn’t return all of it. The Gamecocks weren’t going to sneak up on anyone, would get everybody’s best shot and with games at Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi State, USC would have to play perfect to be perfect.

They didn’t, but they did. There were so many games where USC would disappear for stretches, yet it always found ways to get back to where it was used to being. Comfort wasn’t a buzzword for the team’s 16 SEC games, but nothing was ugly about the results.

Sixteen times USC lined up, and 16 times it won. The Gamecocks kept charging, even after it was clear nobody could stop them from winning the regular-season championship. Yet they refused to celebrate, wanting the perfect record. And they still didn’t celebrate (outside of a choreographed postgame dance-off) because they want another SEC tournament championship.

They’re a piece of history now, a perfect season adding to the dynasty that Staley has built in Columbia. Now comes the time of year where they were always going to be judged, where a final stamp won’t erase what they’ve already done but will define it, for better or worse.

The way the team has continued to win through what’s been thrown at it, letting one get away doesn’t seem to be an option.

The Gamecocks hold their senior day ceremony for the five-woman senior class – 2012 signees Tiffany Mitchell, Asia Dozier and Khadijah Sessions with fifth-year senior Tina Roy and first-year transfer Sarah Imovbioh.

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