Dawn Staley broke the rule. No matter what game is next, it’s equally as important as the others in a league schedule.
This one’s a little more important.
“We did probably tell them more than normal, because I think they need an understanding of tiebreakers,” Staley said Friday before No. 2 South Carolina departed for a showdown at No. 10 Mississippi State. “The teams that you only play once, you got to make sure you win that particular basketball game.”
The Bulldogs fall into that category this year, and while the Gamecocks (18-0, 6-0 SEC) have a two-game lead on their closest competitors in the SEC, they know how one loss can come back to haunt. They’re the current experts, after a loss to Kentucky last season cost them undisputed possession of the regular-season championship. Tennessee also won a piece of it because its 15-1 SEC mark tied USC’s – but USC beat the Lady Vols, claiming the tiebreaker for the SEC tournament’s No. 1 seed.
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Perhaps Staley mentioned it as a way to get her team focused on something beyond the game, since there will already be plenty of distractions. The Bulldogs are a terrific but wounded team, limping in after losing two of three, the last to a Georgia squad that was in the league cellar. Sophomore Victoria Vivians, tied for the league lead in scoring, will want to do better than shooting 5 of 13 to finish with 14 points as she did last year against USC.
There’s also that other factor. Attendance at Humphrey Coliseum has risen with the program’s success, around 4,500 fans coming to home games. MSU hopes to pack 10,000 into the arena on Sunday.
The Gamecocks are no strangers to playing in front of big crowds. As their program rose from good to elite, Colonial Life Arena became the country’s leader in women’s average attendance.
If MSU succeeds in its goal, USC won’t have been in many buildings with that kind of opposing fan power.
“Everybody’s out to get us, but we all we got, we all we need,” senior Khadijah Sessions said. “It’s just us in the gym when we go on the road.”
Staley sees similarities in how Vic Schaefer constructed the Bulldogs to what she did at USC. Like her, he started with defense – he honed his defensive genius under Gary Blair and Arkansas and Texas A&M, and once that was ready, the recruiting cycle came around.
Staley had her program in the NCAA tournament just as a wave of local talent needed to pick a college. Schaefer had Vivians, a prep All-American, 75 minutes from campus and signed her plus a lot of others.
The team set a school record for wins last year, and has continued the success this year. In his fourth season, he’s ahead of Staley’s pace at USC – but he has yet to beat Staley.
USC knows what it’s walking into.
A little more important because of tiebreakers, but overall, another road game. The biggest games of the season won’t be at home.
“We know in this league what we’re challenged with,” Staley said. “The SEC tournament, the national championship game will be on the road.”
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NO. 2 SOUTH CAROLINA (18-0, 6-0 SEC) at NO. 10 MISSISSIPPI STATE (17-3, 4-2)
When: 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, Miss.
Tickets: Available at the box office
South Carolina’s probable starters: G Khadijah Sessions 5-8 Sr. (6.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-9 Sr. (14.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg); G Asia Dozier 6-0 Sr. (3.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg); F A’ja Wilson 6-5 So. (16.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg); C Alaina Coates 6-4 Jr. (12.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg)
Mississippi State’s probable starters: G Morgan William 5-5 So. (9.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg); G Victoria Vivians 6-1 So. (17.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg); G Dominique Dillingham 5-9 Jr. (7.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg); F Ketara Chapel 6-1 Jr. (6.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg); C Chinwe Okorie 6-5 Jr. (7.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
Next game: USC hosts Ole Miss at 7 p.m. on Thursday.