From four straight SEC regular season titles to not even in the conference’s top four.
That’s a very real possibility confronting South Carolina women’s basketball as it travels to Athens, Georgia, on Thursday to face the No. 20 Lady Bulldogs, who are tied with the No. 8 Gamecocks for second place in the SEC.
USC, Georgia and Tennessee are all tied for second, and another group of three teams are one game behind them. Win on Thursday, and Dawn Staley’s team will be in strong position to stay in the league’s top four and claim the double-bye in the conference tournament. Lose, and that scenario doesn’t vanish, but it does become a lot more unlikely.
Unfortunately for South Carolina, the contest could hardly come at a worse time — the Gamecocks have scraped by two low-level SEC teams in their two latest contests, and before that they lost two in a row for the first time in five years.
“February is always hard, and it’s definitely harder having a younger team that really doesn’t understand what’s going on,” Staley said Wednesday. “They’re probably playing a little bit on fumes now. So hopefully we’ll just continue to just get better. I just want us to get more disciplined in what we’re doing and stay organized out there, because once you get fatigued, you want to know people are in the places they’re supposed to be so it can help us get some rest somewhere else.”
The game will also take place in a hostile environment against a Georgia squad that has exceeded expectations this year, in large part thanks to the areas where the Gamecocks have been struggling all year long due to injuries.
“They got pretty good guard play. They got depth from a post and perimeter standpoint. They’re playing great basketball at this time,” Staley said.
“Playing it at their place, I think they’re pretty happy about that. But we’ve been tested on the road and we’ll apply what we learned and hopefully get another SEC road win.”
Georgia doesn’t have any player who averages more than 14 points per game, but they do have 11 players who average at least seven minutes and one point per contest. If the Lady Bulldogs have any real stars, they are the frontcourt duo of senior Mackenzie Engram and junior Caliya Robinson. They each average more than 12 points and six rebounds per game.
“Their post players are their leading scorers,” South Carolina sophomore forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan said of Engram and Robinson. “So as post players we got to go in there and play our game.”
Both Herbert Harrigan and Staley acknowledged the importance of the game and maintaining USC’s status as a top-four team, which would ensure that the Gamecocks only need to play three games to win the SEC tournament. However, they also said they’re trying to avoid overemphasizing the contest.
“I don’t want to put any more pressure on our team than what they’re facing now. We just play it out, gotta control what we can control,” Staley said.
South Carolina tips off against Georgia in Stegeman Coliseum this Thursday at 7 p.m. The contest will stream online on SEC Network Plus.