Cloninger Soundoff: Staley keeps adding winning options

Posted on November 9, 2013 

University of South Carolina center Alaina Coates (41) gets a rebound over Charleston Southern forward Brianna Lakes (24) during the first half of action Friday night in their season opener.

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com

Why is Dawn Staley’s sixth team at South Carolina poised to mimic the fourth and fifth teams, and add to a program that is growing into one of the country’s elite?

Because the talent is so much better.

Those other teams had talent, but these teams have more. That fourth team had an outstanding group of seniors, ones who had been through the struggles and battles of Staley’s first three years and finally tasted success in the fourth. That team, led by La’Keisha Sutton, Markeisha Grant, Courtney Newton, Charenee Stephens and Ebony Wilson, was a collection of fighters. They played with their hearts so far ahead of their talent that it was fun to watch them earn their way to the Sweet 16.

That team will go down as a cornerstone of Staley’s tenure. They were the players who believed, who kept coming back after every grueling day of practice, who dealt with the black eye of a publicized departure and still reported for more. You just don’t replace that.

Except when you replace it with more talent.

Last year repeated the success because the talent was good enough to beat nearly everybody. This year, it’s more of the same. The Gamecocks have experience and talent back from a 25-win team, and they added what they’ve been missing — height.

USC can offer an obstacle in the paint against the SEC’s other bigs. When the Gamecocks have lost over the past two years, it’s usually been because the other team had a big player to throw the ball to. Now, USC has that in Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates, and Aleighsa Welch can play inside and out.

Having the option to play three-guard or play 2-3 with three bigs is an option that Staley didn’t have before. Keeping in mind that North Greenville didn’t have a player over 6 feet tall, the Gamecocks knew the Crusaders couldn’t defend inside, so they threw the ball inside. The result: 78 points in the paint.

The Gamecocks obviously won’t get that every night, but they also know they have options to score. There is no one person to look at when in need of a clutch basket. There are a whole lot of them.

The talent to mix and match leaves Staley with a deeper bench than she’s had in years past, and the parts are interchangeable. There isn’t a lot of dropoff when substitutions are made.

It’s a team built to continue. And with the way Staley is recruiting, the continuation should stretch for years.

That’s in the future, though. The present is that this is a team that will continue to win, continue to finish high in the SEC standings and continue to make the NCAA tournament.

Toughness turned to talent, and having a mix of the two is more than plenty to keep the Gamecocks pointed forward.

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