In just a few days time, South Carolina women’s basketball will welcome the No. 1 team in the country, undefeated Connecticut, and the Huskies’ legendary coach, Geno Auriemma, to its home floor in Colonial Life Arena.
And yet, on Sunday night, the impending UConn-USC matchup seemed almost an afterthought after a wild, intense game between the Gamecocks and their newest, bitterest rival of the moment — Missouri. In the span of three weeks, Mizzou has gone from just another tough SEC foe for Dawn Staley’s team to the team that Gamecock fans most love to hate.
Before USC and Missouri faced off for the first time this year on Jan. 7, star forward A’ja Wilson referred to the contest as “kind of a rivalry game,” adding that “it’s going to be a fun game.” Five fouls, just 18 minutes on the court and one loss later, she wasn’t using the words “fun” and “Missouri” anywhere near each other.
And while Wilson and Staley both tried to downplay the significance of their rematch with the Tigers coming into this weekend’s game, the fans were not shy about expressing their feelings on social media: Jan. 28 would be payback for the Tigers for their hard aggressive play that USC felt crossed the line and became dirty. Sure enough, from the opening tip through the final whistle, the crowd of 13,433 at CLA booed Mizzou at every given opportunity, more so than it has gone after any other opponent this season, and the play on the hardwood was just as physical, culminating in a near-brawl.
Missouri has managed to rise so quickly in South Carolina’s list of rivals thanks in part to traditional rival Kentucky having a down year. Tennessee is also obviously disliked, but the teams’ first meeting this year lost a lot of its heat with Wilson sidelined by injury, though that could change come March. And Staley has expressed respect for Mississippi State and coach Vic Schaefer in the past, and vice versa, and after playing each other four times last year, the two teams are probably looking at only two matchups this season.
Mizzou, meanwhile, has a controversial star player in Sophie Cunningham, a coach in Robin Pingeton that seems to relish her team’s reputation for physicality and a measure of success against USC — before Sunday, the Tigers were the only SEC team to have an active win streak of more than one game against South Carolina.
Staley and Wilson both once again tried to brush aside questions on Sunday about whether or not they had especially strong feelings about Missouri.
“It’s a game. I’m business,” Staley said when asked about her relationship with Pingeton after the two seemed to exchange curt greetings before the game. “It’s a business relationship. We don’t have dinner or lunch, I don’t have dinner or lunch with any SEC coaches.”
“Of course. It’s all love and games,” Wilson said, then laughed, when asked if Cunningham had given her a light shove in the final moments of the contest.
Still, Staley also acknowledged there was a “revenge factor” in play Sunday, and while the victory may have given USC vindication, it only served to fire up Missouri’s fanbase, many of whom felt South Carolina’s players were not fairly punished for their role in the scrum just before halftime.
So while now South Carolina turns to one of the most challenging week of any team in basketball, playing No. 1 UConn and then No. 2 Mississippi State, a lot of fans and commenters are also wondering when, or if, we’ll get Round 3 of USC-Mizzou.
If you’re one of those wondering, circle March 2 on your calendar. That’s the most likely date for the Gamecocks and Tigers to complete their trilogy in the SEC tournament.
As the conference standings lay out at the moment, South Carolina is a No. 3 seed and Missouri is tied for fifth. However, most observers expect USC to jump at least second-place Georgia when they face off on Feb. 15. The Gamecocks would need extra help to move past SEC leader Mississippi State.
Mizzou, meanwhile, has several tough matchups left, including games against Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M. If the Tigers were to lose all three of those games, they would likely fall to a No. 7 seed in the SEC tournament due to head-to-head losses against teams like LSU and Georgia.
If that is the case and Missouri wins its first game on March 1, it would face the No. 2 seed, presumably South Carolina. And given the intense home environments both teams enjoyed through the first two games, it would be interesting to see them square off on a neutral court in Nashville, Tennessee.
However, this is all hypothetical, and any unexpected wins or losses could change the seeding and delay South Carolina-Missouri’s next clash until 2019.
Greg Hadley: @GregHadley9