Dawn Staley on how the last week has prepared the Gamecocks for the postseason
Who: No. 16 South Carolina (15-5, 7-1 SEC) vs. Arkansas (16-6, 5-3 SEC)
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville, Arkansas
Watch: SEC Network
Radio: 107.5 FM in Columbia area
Series history: The series between the programs is split evenly, 17-17. Under Dawn Staley, USC has won nine consecutive games against Arkansas. In Fayetteville, Carolina’s record is 6-10.
Last meeting: South Carolina hosted Arkansas at Colonial Life Arena last season, with the Gamecocks blowing out the Razorbacks by a score of 90-42.
South Carolina projected starting lineup: Junior guard Tyasha Harris, redshirt junior guard Te’a Cooper, redshirt senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings, junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
Arkansas projected starting lineup: Redshirt sophomore guard Chelsea Dungee, senior guard Malica Monk, junior guard Alexis Tolefree, junior guard Jailyn Mason, junior forward Kiara Williams
Road warriors: The Gamecocks are playing their third game this week and second in a row on the road against Arkansas. After returning from Kentucky on Thursday, Dawn Staley gave her team the day off on Friday, leaving the group just one day to prepare for the Razorbacks.
But the intense schedule is something USC likes.
“It’s actually fun. I don’t think we like to have a week off and not play a game. So I think having a lot of games just keeps you in that momentum and it keeps flowing,” junior guard Te’a Cooper said.
The extra day of rest was also crucial, both in forcing the Gamecocks to lock in for their one day of prep and to simulate what postseason play will be like when the team doesn’t have the chance to extensively game-plan for opponents.
“They came in (Saturday) and had probably one of the best practices that we’ve had,” Staley said of her players. “Just energized, a lot of communicating in here, and so hopefully we’ve taken a step up to get closer to playing like it’s an NCAA tournament game. It’s a great environment, it’s a great opponent with a different style of play than we’ve seen, so it’s going to be a good test for us.”
Containing guard play: Arkansas was picked to finish 11th in both the preseason and media SEC polls, but it currently sits tied for fourth, already far ahead of its conference win total from last year.
Staley attributed part of Arkansas’s success to second-year coach Mike Neighbors simply getting a year under his belt to install his system and get several transfers eligible, most notably guard Chelsea Dungee, who leads the team in scoring.
The Razorbacks also rely heavily on 3-pointers — they lead the SEC in 3-point attempts by a wide margin and average eight made 3s per game.
“They shoot it at an astronomical pace,” from 3, Staley said. “Once you know it’s coming you can prep for it, but they’re going to get them up. You’re not going to deny them opportunities to shoot the 3, it’s just that gotta be there to contest, and we got to rebound, because there will be a lot of long rebounds.”
On the flipside, Arkansas’s four-guard lineup will likely leave them vulnerable inside against South Carolina’s post attack, an area the Gamecocks just exploited against Kentucky with strong results.
“That’s one of the keys is to pound it inside and get our post players looks in the paint,” Staley said. “And to attack, although they play a lot of defenses. So we have to, no matter what we call, stay organized because you never know what defense they’ll be in. As long as we got good ball movement and we’re creating fluidity on the offense, we should be alright.”
Managing the bench: South Carolina’s backcourt had a logjam throughout the early part of the season as Staley juggled six or seven players who could make a credible case to start. As of late, that logjam had dissipated as the trio of Tyasha Harris, Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Te’a Cooper locked up the starting jobs.
But Staley indicated ahead of the Arkansas contest that she does hope to get her bench players some meaningful minutes as a result of their improved play in practice — particularly freshman Destanni Henderson, senior Donyiah Cliney and sophomore Bianca Jackson.
“They’re playing well right now. Our bench is getting stronger. I know it doesn’t look like that on game days, but in (practice) it does. So at some point we’re going to start clicking,” Staley said.