COLUMBIA — Dawn Staley has South Carolina off to its best start in 10 years and playing with a hustle the three-time Olympic gold medalist loves.
Still, the Gamecocks’ 7-0 mark and recent Paradise Jam title has made barely a ripple in the rankings. South Carolina sits with just 15 points in the latest poll, well outside the top 25.
The Gamecocks coach isn’t too bothered by the snub – yet.
“It comes in time,” she said Tuesday. “We’re trying to get our program established and respectable. Obviously, you’ve got to keep pounding the pavement.”
South Carolina looked like it had done plenty of that last season when it won 25 games and reached the round of 16 in its first NCAA tournament appearance in nine seasons. But the heart of that team in leading scorers Markeshia Grant and La’Keisha Sutton were seniors whose time had run out and questions about the underclassmen left behind.
So far, Staley likes what’s she’s seen, especially on defense early in the season.
The Gamecocks lead the Southeastern Conference in fewest points given up and in rebounding margin, grabbing nearly 21 more boards than their opponents this season. Staley’s worked hard the first four seasons developing the toughness she displayed as a star point guard at Virginia, in the pros and in leading the U.S. Olympic team.
“That means we’re getting the hustle plays,” Staley said. “We’ve put an emphasis on that since August and it shows that once we put our minds to something, we can be pretty good at it.”
Particularly with the consequences Staley doles out for those who lag on the boards during workouts.
“You don’t get rebounds, then you run,” senior Ieasia Walker said, laughing.
South Carolina has the most wins to start a season since it went 8-0 in 2002-03, which had been the last time the program reached the NCAAs before Staley’s club accomplished that this past season.
The early run includes a third straight victory over rival Clemson and three wins in as many days to take the U.S. Virgin Islands’ Paradise Jam’s Reef Division over Thanksgiving weekend.
Sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch had two double-doubles and double-digit rebounds in all three games to take the tournament’s most outstanding player honors. Welch, at 6-foot, hopes to use her hot start as a springboard for bigger things.
“It does kind of light the fuel to the fire as far as what I can accomplish,” Welch said. “With that, it makes you have to step up your performance even more.”
That’s the attitude Staley’s wanted from her players since arriving before the 2008-09 season. And she complained plenty about spending time teaching players how to practice and play hard, something that came easily to Staley at all levels of the game.
Things changed midway through last season when Staley backed off a bit and let her older players lead the way. What followed made team history as South Carolina broke a 40-game losing streak to women’s basketball powerhouse Tennessee with its first-ever victory in Knoxville. The Gamecocks’ 25-10 mark was their most victories in nine seasons.
This year’s team has seven freshmen or sophomores – including Myrtle Beach product Khadijah Sesssions – on its 11-woman roster and Staley had questions if her untested club could handle three-day basketball grind at the U.S. Virgin Islands last week. The coach got another happy answer with her team’s perfect showing.
“They are a lot more mentally tough,” Staley said. “Not just from a physical standpoint, but a mental standpoint and the variances in the styles of play. I thought they handled all of that really well.”
The Gamecocks know their biggest tests – and ones that could garner lots of national attention – are ahead of them. South Carolina has top-ranked Stanford, which ended the Gamecocks NCAA run at year ago, at Colonial Life Arena on Dec. 19. The Gamecocks open play in the rough-and-tumble SEC two weeks later against Tennessee.
“Everybody’s excited about trying to beat expectations that we had from last year,” Walker said. “We’re happy being 7-0, but we’re not complacent with it.”