That’s the time between Tuesday’s game against College of Charleston and Dec. 17’s contest against Savannah State for South Carolina women’s basketball, the longest stretch of time the No. 5 Gamecocks will go without a game this season.
And in those 12 days, USC coach Dawn Staley will try to construct a consistently competitive team from her current collection of talented pieces.
Against 2-5 College of Charleston, South Carolina put together a mistake-prone, underwhelming performance, winning by just six more points than it did when it routed No. 14 Duke, one of the nation’s best teams, two days earlier. Afterward, Staley blamed mental fatigue for her team’s lackluster result, hitting on themes of discipline, focus and consistency that she’s stressed throughout the 10 games the Gamecocks have played this year.
“They tried to give effort, it’s just mental fatigue. And when that gets a hold of you, it’s hard. It takes a really strong person to fight off that wave, and I just don’t think they’re sophisticated enough to do it,” Staley said.
In those 10 games, South Carolina has managed to avoid major stumbles, winning nine games and losing only to fellow blueblood Notre Dame. But USC has been far from flawless, nearly losing a 26-point lead against Maryland, starting slow against Clemson, trailing after one quarter against Wofford and shooting just 36 percent in the first half against College of Charleston.
Now, 10 games in, Staley and the Gamecocks have a chance to reset themselves and find a way to consistently be the team that dominated Duke and comfortably handled St. John’s, which will be vital heading into SEC play.
“You could say (consistency has been the team’s biggest problem),” Staley said after Tuesday’s game. “A lot of them are playing roles which they haven’t played for us. If you take (junior guard Doniyah Cliney), now you have to take (freshman guard Bianca Jackson), even (redshirt junior forward Alexis Jennings), she’s still a little rusty when it comes to that, and then (sophomore guard Tyasha Harris) is playing a different role for us this year.
“When you’re having to play heavy minutes, make decisions and play heavy minutes, most of them didn’t have to do that for us last year. They come in, they spot, they can play well for a two-, three-minute stretch and give the starters a blow, but now they’re the starters, and now they have to make those plays on a consistent basis, and that takes time to get used to.”
“We’re all just still trying to find each other, how can we make it into the system and how can we perform the best within the system. And it’s tough,” said senior forward A’ja Wilson, who has been a steadying force for USC. “We have freshmen, we have new faces, and it’s hard. This is their first time playing the collegiate game, and they haven’t even played in the SEC yet. So that’s going to be a whole other battle. So I think we’re doing a pretty good job so far, it’s just, how can we make them comfortable? Because when you’re comfortable, that’s when you succeed.”
During the 12-day break that started Wednesday, practice time will be limited as student-athletes take final exams, but Staley expressed optimism about the benefits of the time away from competition.
“Next week during finals week, we are probably full tilt (in practice) ... but shorter. We won’t go as long,” Staley said. “We’ve just got to continue to mentally prepare our team to play at this level, and this is the perfect time to do that, because they’ll be distracted with finals, so to get on the court for an hour or so with high intensity, hopefully, will force themselves to challenge themselves mentally.”
Coming back from the break, the Gamecocks will have time to ease back into competition, facing Savannah State on Dec. 17, Temple on Dec. 21 and then taking 10 days off for Christmas before starting conference play on New Year’s Eve. And by that time, the team’s personnel could look a lot different as injured seniors Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Lindsey Spann work their way toward a return, and junior transfer Te’a Cooper seeks a waiver to play right away.