Staley making sure No. 5 South Carolina stays grounded
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) No. 5 South Carolina won't get a break from SEC opponents - or its coach, Dawn Staley.
Now that the Gamecocks (17-1, 7-0) have gained control of the Southeastern Conference with an emotional, last-second win over No. 4 Mississippi State, Staley wants them to understand the task gets no easier going forward. The next hurdle is against Georgia on Thursday night.
The three-time defending SEC champion Gamecocks have had a target on their back for several seasons.
''If you were in our practice today, you'd see we're not going to let them off the hook,'' Staley said Wednesday.
The coach said the team had an extra spark Monday night in the 64-61 victory , its fourth win over a top 10 opponent this season. The buzz heading into that showdown had been about how maybe it was Mississippi State's time to take down the champs and that didn't sit well, Staley said, with her players.
''We're going to keep pulling that out of them, to keep competing for 40 minutes,'' Staley said. ''It's there, but that's the thing we've been struggling with all season long.''
Struggling doesn't seem an appropriate term for the group Staley has on the court. Forwards A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates are two of the country's premier players while former All-ACC first teamers and transfers Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray have gradually found their niche on the Gamecocks.
All four are double-digit scorers this year as South Carolina leads the SEC in scoring. The Gamecocks are second in the league, behind Mississippi State, in points allowed this season. Still, Staley said her group has at times thought it would out-talent opponents instead of out-work them.
''We were on the other side of out-working people when others out-talented us,'' Staley said of her team's SEC rise the past five years. ''I just don't want us to have that mindset.''
Such a mindset almost cost the Gamecocks when they played Georgia at home two weeks ago. Yes, South Carolina played its first of two games without injured All-American Wilson, but Georgia overcame a rough start and took the Gamecocks to the wire before losing 66-63.
Wilson's back - she had 26 points in the Mississippi State win - and eager to have an impact in the rematch.
''I'm very excited,'' she said. ''It was a close one last time and I'm hoping I can change that.''
Wilson said the team has had its ups and down this season, but understands that it takes maximum effort every night to make it through the SEC schedule. South Carolina has won its last 29 games against SEC competition, yet has several potential land mines ahead.
After Georgia, the Gamecocks return home to face a dangerous Tennessee squad. South Carolina has two games upcoming against Kentucky, the last team to defeat the Gamecocks during the regular season (in 2014-15). There's also a next-to-last road game at Texas A&M, the last SEC team that beat the Gamecocks on their home court way back in 2013.
Oh, and of course there's the nonconference showdown at No. 1 UConn where, if the Huskies win streak continues, it will going for its 100th straight victory when South Carolina shows up on Feb. 13.
''We're not thinking about anything else than what we have to do next,'' Wilson said.
That's just what Staley wants. She acknowledged surprise at times at her team's so-so play, particularly when she expected first-year Gamecocks like Davis, Gray and freshman point guard starter Tyasha Harris to be ''amped up'' to hit the court.
Staley strives to have what she saw Monday night on display each time the Gamecocks play.
''We've got the talent. We've got the ability,'' she said. ''I want that working night in and night out.''
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