Women’s pregame: USC finishes dessert; ready for SEC race

‘Cupcake’ games over as Gamecocks head to unbeaten Arkansas

dcloninger@thestate.comJanuary 1, 2014 

  • NO. 13 USC (12-1) AT ARKANSAS (13-0)

    WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday

    WHERE: Fayetteville, Ark.

    TV: None

    RADIO: WNKT 107.5 FM

    South Carolina’s probable starters: G Tiffany Davis 5-7 RFr. (2.9 ppg, 1.1 rpg); G Asia Dozier 6-0 So. (7.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-9 So. (15.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 Jr. (14.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg); C Elem Ibiam 6-4 Jr. (10.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg)

    Arkansas’ probable starters: G McKenzie Adams 5-9 Fr. (10.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G Calli Berna 5-10 Jr. (7.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg); F Jessica Jackson 6-3 Fr. (14.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg); F Keira Peak 5-9 Sr. (12.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg); F Jhasmin Bowen 6-1 Jr. (10.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg)

    NEXT GAME: USC hosts Vanderbilt at 1 p.m. Sunday

It became a goal after every season became more successful than the previous season.

It led into Dawn Staley’s constant goal — to win an SEC championship.

The two go hand-in-hand, and beginning Thursday night, No. 13 South Carolina resumes its quest.

“I think we are ready,” leading scorer Tiffany Mitchell said as the Gamecocks finished their nonconference season. “We know that the cupcakes are over. We’re going to be ready to play every game.”

Since arriving at USC, Staley has improved her SEC win total every season. It rose from two to seven to eight to 10 to 11. There isn’t much higher that it can go.

That doesn’t matter.

“I do look forward to the challenges,” Staley said. “I’m drawn to it.”

It’s a different team than the ones that have stormed into the Top 25 over the past two years. USC has improved offensively, but looking to match its previous teams defensively.

The Gamecocks have blown out the majority of their non-conference opponents and deserve credit for winning some road games, but also lost to the one “name” opponent they played.

An inexperienced team is learning how Staley wants to control games and she’s hoping the first 13 have set the fundamentals. Tighter defense leads to easier offense, and defense has got to win games in the SEC — as good as the Gamecocks have been, they’re going to be squaring off with some of the nation’s elite.

Trying to outscore teams in a run-and-gun might not be conducive to getting that 12th SEC win.

“I know that we can potentially score some points,” Staley said. “We’re able to put 80 points on the scoreboard, probably should have been a lot more. But on the other hand, defensively, I don’t know how well we can keep people in front of us defensively.”

USC also heads into the SEC opener at undefeated Arkansas on Thursday without point guard Khadijah Sessions, who is unlikely to play due to her sprained left ankle. While Tiffany Davis is improving every game, she doesn’t have the year’s worth of experience that Sessions does.

That affects the offense and defense, but USC has had games to get used to it. If nothing else, when Sessions does return, Davis’ increased playing time helps the team’s depth.

Which helps the drive for the title.

“What we need to do is just find out how we can equal the playing field,” Staley said. “Last year, we had defense. We knew that people were going to score 50, 55 points on us. I think that’s out the door.

“We’re going to be able to score more than 50 points, because that’s what we could get last year. It has to be through hustle, it has to be through rebounding, it has to be able to being able to mix up our defenses.”

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