Women’s pregame: No. 10 USC in ‘signature’ game vs. UNC

No. 14 Tar Heels are the toughest opponent yet

dcloninger@thestate.comDecember 17, 2013 

Dawn Staley

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com

  • NO. 10 USC (9-0) vs. NO. 14 UNC (9-2)

    WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday

    WHERE: Myrtle Beach Convention Center

    TV: None

    RADIO: WNKT 107.5 FM

    South Carolina’s probable starters: G Khadijah Sessions 5-8 So. (8.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg); G Asia Dozier 6-0 So. (8.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-9 So. (15.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 Jr. (14.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg); C Elem Ibiam 6-4 Jr. (10.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg)

    North Carolina’s probable starters: G Jessica Washington 5-8 Fr. (8.2 ppg, 1.5 rpg); G Diamond DeShields 6-1 Fr. (15.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg); G Allisha Gray 6-0 Fr. (15.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg); F Xylina McDaniel 6-2 So. (11.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg); F Stephanie Mavunga 6-3 Fr. (13.7 ppg, 10.4 rpg)

    NEXT: USC hosts Winthrop at noon Friday.

Two years ago, this was the game where the nation took notice.

Two years later, this is the game where South Carolina wants to prove it belongs.

“It’s a great game for women’s basketball, to showcase what both teams have in this early part of the season,” USC coach Dawn Staley said on Monday. “So no, it’s not a must-win, but it’s certainly one that we would love to have under our belts.”

The No. 10 Gamecocks, flying along undefeated and with their highest national ranking in over a decade, face the biggest test of their nonconference season on Wednesday when they take on No. 14 North Carolina in Myrtle Beach.

Staley scheduled the Tar Heels in consecutive years from 2009-11, but took last year off when the game was too close to a home game against Stanford. The schedule worked out this year to put UNC back on the slate.

Now it’s up to USC (9-0) to prove its ranking and statistics (tops in the SEC in shooting percentage, second nationally in scoring defense) are for real. This is the only “name” game of the nonconference schedule — win, and let the country know that the Gamecocks are ready for anything; lose, and face detractors of, “Well, they lost to the only real team they played.”

“I think it will be a great measuring stick for where we are against some of the best teams in the country, and, hopefully, we’ll be able to perform and execute our game plan to put us in a position to win,” Staley said.

In the 2011-12 season, USC knew it had a strong team, one that was ready to erase the oh-so-close finishes of the past two years and get to the NCAA tournament. With USC 8-2, having lost to ranked Penn State and on the road to N.C. State, the Tar Heels seemed to have a heavy advantage.

But USC couldn’t miss a shot, opening on an 11-0 run and scoring 50 points in the first half. UNC quickly succumbed when it was evident that it was one of those games, and the Gamecocks had their signature win, 79-48.

That began the journey that Staley had hoped for, with that team making the Sweet 16 and returning to the NCAA tournament last season, despite the loss of a core group of seniors. This year, with more talent and having hammered every opponent they’ve played, the Gamecocks are hoping to put it all together.

The missed layups that could have hurt against a better opponent need to be sunk. The defense that has been a hallmark of the past two years needs to lock down against another powerful UNC lineup, including Columbia native and one-time Staley recruit Xylina McDaniel.

The Tar Heels have lost to Tennessee, and in overtime to Arizona State. They’re the first, and best, opponent in a stretch where USC plays three games in five days.

Lot of season left, no matter the result.

But the Gamecocks know how good they are, and how good they can be. The country has noticed — but USC can quantify it Wednesday.

“It is a big opportunity,” Staley said. “It’s not a hard game to get the kids motivated for.”

Follow Cloninger on Twitter at @DCTheState

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