Dawn Staley was not well-versed in the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry when she took the Gamecocks coaching job two years ago. Likewise for junior guard La’Keisha Sutton. She is from Trenton, N.J., and heard little about the fierce competition between the state’s largest schools.
The two have suffered consecutive losses in their two years here and would like to see that trend change beginning tonight when the teams face off in a 7 p.m. battle at the Colonial Life Arena.
“Every game is important but this one in particular because it’s our rival,” Sutton said. “We lost to them the last two times out, but the third time is the charm. I’m looking forward to it. The first day I stepped on campus in University 101 (I understood the importance) because a lot of people made a fuss about the Carolina-Clemson rivalry.”
Staley wants to get an upper hand in recruiting, with a talented junior and sophomore class in the state headlined by Spring Valley’s duo of Xylina McDaniel and Asia Dozier as well as Myrtle Beach’s Khadijah Sessions.
“One, we’ve got to win because we haven’t won my first two years here,” Staley said. “It’s a state rival team and a lot of people, including a lot of great high school players, will be watching. It’s good to get a recruiting edge as well.”
If Staley and crew hope to break the losing streak, they are going to have to continue to get the effort they have on the glass in the first two games. Without a player taller than 6-1, the Gamecocks have out-rebounded Xavier and Illinois by an average of eight per game.
Clemson is also outrebounding teams by eight per game and has averaged nearly 49 boards a game.
“I’m surprised by the results of our rebounding,” Staley said. “I know we’ve been working really hard at it, just from a separation standpoint. I’m really pleased with that stat. I thought we would have trouble rebounding and not scoring but we’re having trouble scoring and not rebounding. We aren’t scoring as much as I thought we would.”
Winning the rebounding battle will again be a challenge against the Tigers (2-0). Clemson is led by Shaniqua Pauldo in the middle. The 6-3 center had her way last year in the Tigers’ 94-92 overtime victory with 20 points and nine rebounds.
But Staley has watched the emergence of sophomore Ashley Bruner to help elevate the inside game. Last year, she averaged 2.5 points and 2.8 rebounds and never became a factor in the regular rotation.
But she changed her approach in the offseason and was more focused when she returned to campus in the fall. She is playing the way Staley thought she was capable of when she recruited the 6-foot forward out of Norman, Okla.
Bruner leads South Carolina at 14.0 points and 13.5 rebounds a game.
“I expected some of that last year,” Staley said. “Maybe not as consistent as she has been the first two games of the season, but at least a little bit of that. We had a lot of meetings and discussions with Ashley about her not being the player I saw when I went out to Oklahoma to see her play. She was better intensity-wise, but she is that player right now. It takes some players a little bit longer to transition from high school to college but I think we are starting to see the Ashley we expected.”