No. 2 South Carolina looking at championship run
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina fans needed something to cheer about and the second-ranked Gamecocks women's basketball team gave them exactly that Sunday.
The defending Southeastern Conference champions hit the court for the first time, easily putting away overmatched Division II opponent Coker 100-25. Things start for real at home against Southern Cal on Nov. 15 in what the Gamecocks hope is the first step in a national championship season.
A very large piece of that puzzle is prized freshman A'ja Wilson. The versatile 6-foot-5 forward turned down national champion Connecticut and perennial powers Tennessee and North Carolina to play for coach Dawn Staley.
More than 3,000 fans filled the building to watch the team's debut, a day after their one-time SEC East football favorites squandered a two-touchdown lead in the final five minutes to lose in overtime, 45-42, to Tennessee. The football Gamecocks fell to 4-5 and will need to win two of their last three simply to qualify for the postseason.
Women's basketball might be the school's perfect pick-me-up to that disappointing season.
South Carolina student Abby Hunt said on Twitter she was happy to have Gamecock women's basketball ''back in play.''
Especially if they keep playing like this.
The team features defending SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell and all-SEC forward Aleighsa Welch. There are also three other 6-4 players on the roster, including SEC freshman and sixth player of the year, Alaina Coates. Each of the Gamecocks' tallest players saw significant action in the season's lone warm-up game.
Wilson, who was MVP of the FIBA U18 Americas championship playing for USA Basketball this summer, got the start and led the Gamecocks with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Coates was right behind with 16 points and seven boards while Elem Ibiam had 12 points and four rebounds. The three combined for nine of the Gamecocks' 11 blocked shots.
Staley began prepping her players for the massive expectations - South Carolina has sold more than 6,600 season tickets so far, an increase over last year's 4,213 - shortly after the No. 1 seeded Gamecocks fell in the round of 16 in last year's NCAA tournament. She's talked openly and often of winning a national title.
''We had everybody coming back, bringing in a pretty good recruiting class, expectations would be high,'' Staley said. ''There isn't anything higher than the national championship. So we're just going to start off by saying that's what we want to do.''
Staley said most of her players, accustomed to getting so many on-court minutes, will likely have to give up some as the season moves on.
''They're used to being on the floor and they're used to competing and contributing,'' the seventh-year coach said. ''That might not be the case at different times during the season. So we've got to make sure we're sacrificing for the greater good.''
Coates said the team is learning what comes with high rankings and big-time matchups like the Gamecocks will face in the SEC and at No. 7 Duke (Dec. 7) and at No. 1 Connecticut (Feb. 9) this season.
''It's easy for anyone to have a chip on their shoulder after that'' ranking, Coates said. ''But we know that it's going to take a lot of hard work and that we won't beat anybody saying `We're going to do this. We're going to do that,' without putting in the effort.''