David Cloninger

Commentary: Dawn Staley, Gamecocks confident in their mind game

“The mental approach” is always a subject this time of year.

“Where’s your team at, mentally?” “How mentally tough are you?” “You’re eating lutefisk without butter? That’s mental (South Dakota influence).”

Dawn Staley and her players were asked about it a lot on Thursday. Where are their minds, to sort-of quote The Pixies, as South Carolina prepares to play in its fourth Sweet 16 in five years?

“We’re coming into the tournament feeling pretty confident, just kind of knowing where we’re at just playing our best basketball right now,” senior Asia Dozier said. “So it’s definitely a good feeling.”

The Gamecocks have been here before. And they know how hard it is to get out of here – yes, they made the Final Four last season, but remember how those games went. Tiffany Mitchell beat North Carolina with a last-second layup, and against Florida State the Gamecocks were down double-digits before they woke up.

Their mentality this year is reflecting that. They’re far from being the wide-eyed newbies on the block. They’re thrilled to be here, but also of a mind that they’re not here to party (as if the snow that blanketed the town on Wednesday wasn’t enough of a deterrent), they’re here to work.

All season long, this has been an immensely talented team. Yet all season long, it was a case of, “When are they really gonna turn it on?”

They’d win, but they didn’t have that pedal-to-the-metal aggression. They didn’t carve people up like we all knew they could. I was wondering if that was ever going to manifest, and then I quit thinking that because the team was so thin due to injuries that the main goal was finding a way to win.

It all changed when the Gamecocks returned to full strength and went to Jacksonville for the SEC tournament. The comments from Andy Landers and Makayla Epps were breezy, flip, nothing to be enraged over.

Staley didn’t see it that way. Whether she really felt her team was being disrespected or she wanted to see how her team would respond, she let her players read and hear the words and act how they wanted. It certainly worked.

That team in Jacksonville was the team I thought I’d see all season. The Gamecocks used every bit of the talent at their disposal, holding Kentucky’s nose and kicking its tail for 40 full minutes and then hammering Mississippi State. Those Gamecocks were exceptionally mean, narrow-eyed and teeth bared as they went after their mission.

They’ve had that in doses the past two games, which was OK – Jacksonville and Kansas State were going to be overwhelmed by USC’s star play and Colonial Life Arena. Now the competition gets stiffer and the USC fans that expected to make a seven-hour drive to see their beloveds play got belted with a much further voyage.

Yet their mentality should be fine. They’re the ones who have been here and know what it takes to get out. It certainly helps that Syracuse’s Bria Day said something to ruffle some feathers – and while she and her coach said that her comment was misconstrued, nobody denied saying it.

So when Khadijah Sessions was asked about her team’s mentality, she didn’t hesitate. In the same steely-eyed glare that should have won her SEC tournament MVP, she talked about playing as if this next one was the last one.

“We don’t want it to end here,” she said. “We have to be locked into the championship mindset at all times.”

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