David Cloninger

Commentary: Gamecocks lose focus and the game

Dawn Staley wasn’t crying. I would have been stunned if she had been, even more stunned than I was watching South Carolina lay a colossal egg on Friday.

The most competitive person I have ever known was glib and frank – like she always is. South Carolina lost to Syracuse because it deserved to lose to Syracuse.

That’s the bottom line.

“I told our players, if you’re hurting, if you’re crying because you’re saying good-bye to our seniors, great,” Staley said. “But you should hurt and you should cry for not being in this position at this time of the season by the amount of work you need to put in to ensure that this doesn’t take place prematurely anymore.”

See that? How she offers condolences in the form of criticism? That’s how she built the program from a 10-win group of believers into one of the most formidable teams in the country.

It’s something she’s had ever since she played. I talked to some of her Virginia teammates last year for a story and they said some of the same things – Staley was never, ever going to sit around and cry over a loss.

“Tears don’t get you anywhere,” she was fond of saying. “Hard work does.”

That was the message she conveyed to her team. The Gamecocks got beat because they accepted how to play Friday. They should have been forcing the game to Syracuse, not the other way around.

As much as the Gamecocks have accomplished over the past three seasons, Staley always knew that this season would only be judged on what it did in March. It’s not an insult, it’s a fact – UConn, Stanford, Baylor and as we’re finding out, Tennessee, don’t lose these kinds of games.

That was the agonizing part of Friday.

USC has had a tremendous year, but it will always be remembered as one that got away because the Gamecocks didn’t have it between the ears when they needed it. A lack of talent didn’t lose that game; a lack of focus did.

So they bid farewell to a well-traveled group of seniors, who won a lot and lost a few and really put the program on the map. The Gamecocks, despite losing so much, will still be tremendously talented next year.

They just have to hold onto the feeling of an angry and sobbing postgame locker room, to realize why it felt that way. And come back ready – no, not ready, furiously committed – to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

That’s what wins in March. And those journeys aren’t fueled by tears.

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