After No. 3 South Carolina women’s basketball started slow and then revved up to beat Wofford this past Sunday, coach Dawn Staley said her team was a little tired from traveling and playing three games in seven days.
This Thanksgiving weekend, the Gamecocks (4-0) will attempt to stretch their endurance and focus even further, playing three games in three days in Estero, Florida, as part of the Gulf Coast Showcase tournament.
“It’s tough. It’s what we want,” Staley said of the early season tourney, which includes eight teams. “It builds character for us, it gets us ready to play in March, at the SEC tournament. I like the competition, I like the fact that it’s a three-game tournament. But we don’t have a whole lot of bodies so hopefully we can take care of business.”
USC is the top-ranked team in the field, which includes No. 6 Notre Dame, No. 17 South Florida, Eastern Tennessee State, St. John’s, Washington State, Western Michigan and the Gamecocks’ first opponent, 4-0 Rutgers.
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Of those teams, only Washington State has a losing record early on, and because South Carolina has just 10 available players at the moment, each one of the three games that take place Friday, Saturday and Sunday will test the squad’s depth and Staley’s ability to keep everyone fresh.
“It’s definitely important for us to build that team chemistry on and off the court,” redshirt senior guard Lindsey Spann said. “Playing in a tournament environment, having to play three games in three days is definitely going to be a good test for us, I think.”
Part of the off-court bonding took place when the team arrived in Florida on Wednesday and went to the local malls, Staley said. The team also shared a Thanksgiving meal at the hotel on Thursday.
Both Staley and Spann said meshing outside of basketball will be important for the Gamecocks as they attempt to incorporate new players (three freshmen and three transfers) and address what Staley has consistently said is the biggest problem so far this season — a lack of focus and mental toughness at times.
“They are good character kids, I know that,” Staley said of her players. “They’re a tight knit group. They play well together but they fall victim to what we did last year in that they’re not always motivated coming into practice every day. And I think that’s going to be the difference between us continuing to build and progress versus taking two steps back and one step forward.”
Focus and motivation will be key in the Gamecocks’ first game against Rutgers, a team that is coming off the worst season in program history but has retooled with eight players that didn’t suit up for the Scarlet Knights last season and is currently undefeated.
“They’re an aggressive team,” Spann said of Rutgers. “They play defense for 40 minutes, all game long. They’re going to be in your face, they’re going to be active. They’re loud, they’re jumpy, they’re all over the floor. They press a lot, so we definitely have to take care of the ball.”
Rutgers ranks 15th in the country in turnovers forced per game, while South Carolina has given up the 13th fewest in the NCAA. Both teams rank in the nation’s top 40 for turnover margin, and Staley compared the Scarlet Knights’ defense to one of the best out there.
“It should be a really tough matchup for us on the road, but we’ll dig in our Mississippi State bag of tricks because they pressure for 40 minutes (like Mississippi State),” Staley said.
On Wednesday, Staley said she was unsure as to whether senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, who has missed all of the team’s four regular season games so far with a sprained knee, will play in Florida.
“I don’t know where she’s going to be as far as this weekend, I’m hoping maybe we get some minutes out of her, but she hasn’t been cleared to play yet,” Staley said.
Gamecock Fan Essentials
What: Gulf Coast Showcase, an eight-team tournament. The Gamecocks play Rutgers, who received votes in the latest AP poll, in the first round
When: Nov. 24 at 1:30 p.m., Nov. 25 at 11 a.m. or 5 p.m., Nov. 26 at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 5 p.m. or 7:30 p.m.
Where: Germain Arena, Estero, Florida
Watch: Streaming on FloHoops.com (subscription required)
Notes: Rutgers is coming off the worst season in program history last year but is undefeated so far this season ... South Carolina will face either St. John’s or Western Michigan in the second round, either for the first time in program history .... USC could potentially play No. 6 Notre Dame in the championship game, a rematch of the 2015 Final Four matchup the Irish won at the last second ... Could also face No. 17 South Florida, who has already beaten SEC opponent LSU this year