Ron Morris

Staley works to keep players focused on goal

USC’s Aleighsa Welch says the team must stay focused in Tampa.
USC’s Aleighsa Welch says the team must stay focused in Tampa. tglantz@thestate.com

Three of this weekend’s participants in the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four are making a return engagement from 2014. Connecticut is appearing in an eighth consecutive Final Four, and Notre Dame counts five straight showings. Maryland won a national championship in 2006 before bowing out in the semifinals a year ago.

South Carolina?

The Gamecocks are newcomers to the big stage, and it would be perfectly understandable if they took a “just happy to be here” approach to the first Final Four appearance in program history.

“We’ve been playing in situations all year long where we were in the driver’s seat,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “I think that’s no longer the case. In the Final Four, we’ll go back, probably, to being the underdogs because we’re the new kids on the block.

“But we won’t act like the new kids on the block. We will definitely (prepare) to take advantage of the moment, because we never know when we’ll get back to the Final Four.”

Staley and her coaching staff will, no doubt, have USC prepared to face Notre Dame in Sunday’s semifinal in Tampa, Fla. A week to dissect an opponent and practice usually has a team schooled in every possible situation.

Perhaps the biggest task for Staley and her staff will be convincing their players that an NCAA tournament regional title and Final Four berth were not the ultimate goals this season.

Senior Aleighsa Welch understands that.

“It’s going to be different. It’s going to be different, mainly, because none of us has been here before,” Welch said. “I think it’s a matter of savoring the moment, taking it all in and accepting the fact it’s something new.

“But focus. It’s a business trip. We’re not going down there to sightsee or to have fun with everything that goes on before. We’re going down to win two games. So we’ve got to stay focused and got to put ourselves in the best possible position to win.”

Easier said than done.

The euphoria over capturing the Greensboro Regional title began immediately after the horn sounded this past Sunday to conclude USC’s victory against Florida State. Players danced around the court. Welch sought her mother in the Greensboro Coliseum stands and they enjoyed an extended embrace.

Then, one by one, USC players and coaching staff clipped the nets at one end of the court. Most of the players took their snippet of net and tied it to the backside of the ball caps issued earlier.

Staley wore the remaining part of the nets around her neck. Those nets likely will eventually wrap around the regional championship trophy in a case at Colonial Life Arena.

One day after USC punched its ticket to the Final Four, No. 1-ranked Connecticut joined the field with a victory against Dayton. Following the win, Connecticut donned T-shirts that read “Cut the Nets,” but the Huskies did not do so for the seventh consecutive season.

“We have a certain net in mind that we want to cut,” Connecticut forward Morgan Tuck told sunyuconn.com. “The regional championship isn’t that one. We don’t want people to think that we’re too good to cut down a net or things like that. There’s a tradition here now that we cut only one net down and that’s after the very last game of the season.”

It signaled the different mindset of Connecticut from USC. Connecticut immediately eliminated any possible feeling of just being happy to be in the Final Four. Staley began working toward that end at midnight on Tuesday.

First, she said it was important that her team celebrate a tremendous accomplishment by taking both Monday and Tuesday off from basketball. She allowed her players 48 hours to soak in all the adulation that came with earning a Final Four berth.

Then, at midnight Tuesday, Staley no longer allowed any players or staff members to participate in social media. The team conducted a spirited practice on Wednesday and again on Thursday at Carolina Coliseum.

Following Thursday’s practice before the team boarded a plane for Tampa, Staley huddled the players near midcourt and extended a single message: “This is a business trip.”

“I can vividly remember the first time I experienced my first Final Four,” said Staley, who played in three at Virginia from 1990-92. “You can’t help but to get (excited). It sucks you in. There is so much hype. There’s so much stuff that goes along with participating in the Final Four.”

Staley said her staff will plan as many meetings and film sessions as possible Friday and Saturday in addition to the scheduled practices. Players, she said, will know to reject requests to be with family and friends, many of whom will be lodging in the same Tampa hotel as the team.

“You’re going to have the rest of your life to spend with family,” Staley said. “After Tuesday, you’ll have as much time as possible with your family. But for the time we’re down there, it’s a business trip for us.”

Even if USC is very happy to be there.

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