There wasn’t a whole lot South Carolina women’s basketball didn’t do last year — suffering an early loss but bouncing back, going undefeated in conference play, taking down mighty UConn.
Come Sunday, though, the Gamecocks will face an unfamiliar situation, to which coach Dawn Staley is eager to see how her team responds.
The SEC regular season title is on the line. Beat No. 3 Texas A&M on the road, and the Gamecocks secure their six conference championship in eight years, plus the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament that starts next Wednesday in Greenville. Lose, and USC won’t get a banner, will slip to No. 2 in conference tourney behind the Aggies and might even put their No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in jeopardy.
“We’ve never actually been in this situation last year, because by this time we were the regular season champions,” Staley noted Friday. “So I’m actually looking forward to seeing how this team approaches it, how this team is able to execute, especially on the road against a really good basketball team. So, I hope our experiences as far as the schedule that we played, I hope we can put it all together and win a big game like this.”
South Carolina has won seven meetings in a row with Texas A&M dating back to 2015, but that stretch has included some tense, memorable battles. Five games were decided by single digits, three by three or fewer points.
And this Aggie squad is far different from the ones the Gamecocks have beaten the past three years. In that stretch, A&M guard Chennedy Carter was the star, dominating the ball and scoring points in large chunks.
This season, coach Gary Blair’s squad doesn’t really have a star. The most high-profile player is probably N’dea Jones — she’s second in the SEC in double-doubles and fourth in rebounds in game. But Jones is just one of four A&M players to average double figures in scoring, and no one Aggie scores more than 13 points per game.
“They can play big, they can play small, they’re just really versatile,” Staley said. “And they spread it out, so you’re not really concentrating on one person like they have for the past couple of years. Everybody’s waited their turn with the exit of Chennedy Carter. But now they’re showing what they can do when the ball is in their hands.”
Staley also praised Texas A&M’s depth — the Aggies have 14 players who have appeared in at least 10 games this season. That’s one area where Staley has been looking to bolster her own squad. Outside of the Gamecocks’ usual starting five of Destanni Henderson, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Victaria Saxton and Aliyah Boston, Staley said there are only two reserves in whom she’s full confident: senior LeLe Grissett and sophomore Laeticia Amihere.
“Aside from LA and LeLe, you know, it’s a toss-up. If they get out there it’s because I’m probably taking the chance that they’ll give us a bump somewhere,” Staley said.
Toss-ups aren’t all that great heading into a championship scenario like the one South Carolina faces this Sunday. But Staley did say her squad has continued to practice well and didn’t need a “jolt” in their preparation.
“This team has been pretty cool. This team is one that just takes what’s given it. And I don’t know if jolting them is the thing that will move them,” Staley said. “I think, you know, when we put together a pretty good game plan and they feel good about it, they’re very confident in it.
NEXT USC BASKETBALL GAME
Who: No. 5 South Carolina (19-3, 14-1 SEC) vs. No. 3 Texas A&M (21-1, 12-1 SEC)
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Reed Arena, College Station, Texas