In each of the past four years, South Carolina has charged into the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, fresh off a championship run in the SEC tournament, eager to keep up its momentum.
At the Gamecocks’ watch party Monday, however, things were different, and not just because the bracket had been accidentally leaked several hours early.
For the first time since 2010, USC failed to win a single game in the conference tourney. When Dawn Staley’s team finally starts its NCAA journey on Friday against Belmont, it will be two full weeks since Arkansas shocked the Gamecocks in the SEC quarterfinals. That defeat pushed Staley and her staff to take stock and make changes to the team, so much so that Staley said Monday she was confident that “we won’t be the same team that took the floor two Fridays ago.”
“We’ve been practicing, we’ve been getting after it, and I think the players have been challenged in a way that they needed to be challenged to get us back to playing our best basketball,” Staley said. “And hopefully on Friday we’ll be a different team and a better team.”
Making major adjustments so late in the season isn’t always the norm, but Carolina has lost three of its last five games, a unusually down stretch for the program and somewhat reminiscent of the team’s struggles early this year.
Specifically, Staley and junior guard Tyasha Harris said the team has been working on its defense — Arkansas’ 95 points in the SEC tournament are the most South Carolina has given up to a league opponent in the Staley era.
“We gotta create that momentum, we have to compete on both sides of the ball and get back to the things in which we can feel really good about. We can feel good about scoring a lot of points, but when you give up more than what you’re able to produce, it makes you think. We gotta go back to the basics in defending and keeping people in front of us,” Staley said.
“Just competing and picking up our pressure on the ball and defensively, and maybe that’ll make us have better offense,” Harris said of the emphasis in practices lately.
There’s also a mental component to South Carolina’s bounceback effort — in the aftermath of the SEC tournament upset, players seemed stunned and gutted.
“I was very disappointed, as you could see,” Harris, who was crying in the locker room said. “But we’ve turned the page. We’re getting ready and we’re bringing a different level. It’s gonna be a different basketball team on the floor, and I’m excited to see what we have.”
And while of course Staley didn’t want to look too far ahead, a Sweet 16 matchup with Baylor, who dominated South Carolina, 94-69, earlier this season, looms. For the Gamecocks to reach their third Elite Eight in a row, they’ll need to be a vastly different team than they were Dec. 3 at Colonial Life Arena.
“I hope we’re not the same team that played them in December. I think you gotta game plan, because at this stage in the game, there’s some luck that has to be involved in it, there’s some matchups you have to exploit. I hope we’re prepping to play Baylor, but a lot has to do with us and how productive we are out on the floor on Friday,” Staley said.
Who: No. 4 seed South Carolina (21-9) vs. No. 13 seed Belmont (26-6)
When: 1:45 p.m., Friday, March 22
Where: Halton Arena, Charlotte, North Carolina
Listen: 107.5 FM in Columbia area