South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley passes the ball during practice for of a regional semifinal women's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 24, 2016, in Sioux Falls, S.D. South Carolina will play Syracuse on Friday. (AP Photo
Charlie Neibergall
March 28, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Dawn Staley wants the Gamecocks to remember the hollow, empty feeling in the locker room after top-seeded South Carolina was ousted from the NCAA Tournament - short of a second straight Final Four appearance.

Staley talked before the season began about how this group needed to put in the work to return to the top instead of simply expecting success to follow from the program's first-ever Final Four appearance in 2015.

That gap showed up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the Gamecocks' season crash-landed with a come-from-behind effort by Syracuse in an 80-72 upset in the Sweet 16.

Staley's players were in tears Friday night and the coach - who reached three Final Fours as Virginia's star point guard - said it was OK if they were crying because it was the last game for five of them, including two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year Tiffany Mitchell.

But Staley said there should be no tears for their NCAA Tournament loss, which showed they needed to put even more work in to guarantee it wouldn't happen again.

''I want our returners to dwell on it,'' Staley said. ''What are you going to do about it?''

In Staley's view, that means more time in the gym improving.

And despite the loss of Mitchell, the three-time SEC champss should be a title contender again in 2017.

The dominating frontcourt of A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates will be back for South Carolina (33-2) to cause more havoc underneath for opponents. The 6-foot-5 Wilson, the reigning SEC player of the year, finished with a team high 16.1 points a game and 103 blocks.

Coates, at 6-4, had 20 double-doubles this season - she averaged 12 points and 10 boards - and was often on the other end of Wilson's inside passes.

The Gamecocks also get a boost from two highly regarded Atlantic Coast Conference transfers in Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, both who become eligible after sitting out this season.

Davis averaged 19.2 points a game two seasons ago at Georgia Tech, where she became the fastest player ever to reach the 1,000-point level.

Gray was a starter at North Carolina, who averaged a team-best 15.8 points a game in 2015.

Both Davis and Gray were all-ACC first-team performers. That doesn't make them immediate starters at South Carolina.

While Davis and Gray spent this past year practicing and bonding with the Gamecocks, they didn't get the first-team practice reps and will still need to transition into Staley's offense. There's still just one ball and, potentially, four double-digit scorers to spread it around.

Staley expects Davis and Gray will add to the competitiveness this offseason and drive for the top all next fall.

''They're competitors,'' the coach said. ''They want to win.''

Where things are not as clear for South Carolina is at point guard.

Khadijah Sessions was a rock-solid senior who kept the ball moving and played strong defense. Her backup, sophomore Bianca Cuevas, has been both a sparkplug scorer and somewhat turnover prone. She finished with 64 turnovers which was the third highest amount on the team despite playing 18 minutes a game.

Staley has highly regarded point guard prospect Araion Bradshaw of Hyde Park, Massachusetts signed for next season - someone who could pressure Cuevas for playing time.

Of course, Staley might let the multi-skilled Wilson bring the ball up more as she did in high school.

Staley has said she wants to develop Wilson's other talents beyond scoring from close to the basket. Wilson has said she is ready for the challenge.

For all of the pieces to fall into place, the Gamecocks have to put aside this season's disappointment and return to work as quickly as possible.

Said Staley, ''They have to know the amount of work they've got to put so this doesn't happen anymore.''

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