Josh Kendall

Early NCAA rounds just part of ‘process’ for Gamecocks

USC’s Tiffany Mitchell and the Gamecocks have the national title in their sights.
USC’s Tiffany Mitchell and the Gamecocks have the national title in their sights. tglantz@thestate.com

South Carolina’s women’s basketball team completed step one of what coach Dawn Staley hopes is a six-step journey Friday night.

“I like to think of it as a process to continue to get better, continue to make adjustments from game to game,” Staley said after her top-seeded Gamecocks won their opening-round game in the NCAA Tournament. “Obviously, we have been in this situation before so we are familiar with it. It is a process for our players to see what issues we had in this game and then try to correct those things.”

Step two is Sunday. With all the proper apologies to opponent Kansas State, it’s not expected to be much more challenging than step one, in which the Gamecocks drubbed Jacksonville 77-41.

There is little madness in early March in the women’s tournament. The depth of the sport remains too shallow to provide the juggernauts of the game like South Carolina much more in the early rounds than an opportunity to hone their game for the later rounds.

“We are kind of staying in the moment and taking each day by itself, but at the end of the day we know what we want,” South Carolina star Tiffany Mitchell said. “Taking it game-by-game, we can knock down each game and get to our ultimate goal.”

The Gamecocks advanced to the Final Four last year, and a return trip has been the team’s expectation since the season began, but that’s not the “ultimate goal” Mitchell is referencing. She’s talking about the national championship, and that means she’s talking about UConn. The No. 1 Huskies, the top seed in the Bridgeport Regional, sit straight across the bracket from South Carolina.

The Gamecocks are 0-2 against the Huskies in the last two years, and weren’t particularly competitive in February when UConn came into Colonial Life Arena and left with a 66-54 victory. Huskies coach Geno Auriemma spoke that night about being in South Carolina’s shoes 25 years ago. At the time, his team was the up-and-comer and kept banging its head on the glass ceiling of Tennessee basketball.

“Where (the Gamecocks) are right now is a lot further ahead than where we were in 1991,” Auriemma said. “It’s just going to take time. You don’t build these things overnight. No matter what anybody says, it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to start somewhere, and you have to keep making that next step, next step, next step, next step, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

South Carolina is three steps from a spot in the Final Four in Indianapolis, and four from a possible rematch with UConn.

“We are not settling for we only lost (to the Huskies) by a little bit,” Mitchell said. “Our ultimate goal is to beat them and they are at the top. Until we get over that hump, that’s going to be who our main focus is to knock down.”

Then, the process will be complete.

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