COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina has been ranked the No. 1 team in the nation for the past 11 weeks. Finally, the undefeated Gamecocks have the chance to prove it on the court.
The Gamecocks (22-0) take on two-time defending national champion Connecticut on Monday in a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 showdown that figures to go a long way to either getting those Huskies holdouts on South Carolina's bandwagon or ending the Gamecocks' record-breaking start.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley understands her team doesn't always look like the well-oiled machines put out there by Connecticut, Baylor and Notre Dame in recent seasons. But she's convinced her team's style of gritty defense and push-the-pace play can be just as successful.
''It's a huge opportunity for us to wave the flag of so many other programs that are like us,'' Staley said Friday. ''When you compare UConn to other programs, they're sharp, they're efficient, there's no fat, they're really tight in what they do. With us, we're flawed.''
Not so far. The Gamecocks look to extend their best-ever winning streak and set a mark for consecutive wins in any sport at the school.
Still, each new ranking that comes out includes a healthy amount of No. 1 votes for the country's second ranked team.
A'ja Wilson, the 6-foot-5 freshman who spurned Connecticut and others to join South Carolina, said the Gamecocks haven't let those voters or anyone's outside perceptions distract them from the task at hand.
''We really don't pay attention to it,'' she said. ''We work within ourselves and we're trying to figure out what we need to do to make ourselves better in our game.''
That's been evident in each game.
Wilson has been the headliner much of the season, averaging 13 points and seven rebounds. But the past two games, freshman point guard Bianca Cuevas led the team in scoring and disrupted Ole Miss and Georgia with her swarming defensive style.
South Carolina's 58-35 victory over No. 22 Georgia on Thursday night came with 6-4 Alaina Coates on the bench serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules. Coates, last year's SEC freshman of the year, has had an SEC best 10 games with double figure points and rebounds.
Gamecocks senior Aleighsa Welch, an all-SEC team member last season, believes she and her teammates have kept their poise throughout because they're focused on each step of the journey instead of the ultimate goal. It's less important, she said, to take down a Connecticut than to make sure the team's playing at peak performance in March.
''It's not a game about proving ourselves,'' Welch said. ''It's a game about us. It's a game about making sure we come out with a game plan. When you come out feeling you have to make this a statement game, that's when you can stumble a bit.''
Staley and her players welcome the freedom that comes from no longer having to bottle up discussion about Connecticut, despite fielding questions about the contest the past several weeks in anticipation for the pending top-of-the-rankings battle.
''I'm glad it's the University of South Carolina playing the traditional power of UConn,'' Staley said. ''It's a great measuring stick for us to see how far we've come.''
Connecticut (21-1) has a contest Saturday at Memphis before turning its full attention to the Gamecocks. Since 2009, Connecticut's been involved in nine such No. 1 vs. No. 2 games, winning eight of them.
Staley, as a Virginia senior, won her only such matchup in 1992, the second-ranked Cavaliers taking down top-ranked Maryland 75-74. The coach said she may share some memories about the discipline it takes to maintain focus with thousands of screaming fans in opposition in a super-charged arena.
''But I've got to let our players play,'' she said. ''That's what my coach did for me.''