SEATTLE — Dawn Staley badly wanted Alaina Coates. She knew what the 6-foot-4 center could bring to her basketball team. She knew that even after winning 50 games and playing in two NCAA tournaments over two seasons, Coates would be the player to weld that last missing link to the chain of elite South Carolina basketball.
Staley was right, as Coates has certainly been a major piece of the Gamecocks 28-4 season, which picks up again Tuesday night against Oregon State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Coates was named consensus SEC Freshman of the Year, SEC Co-Sixth Woman of the Year and was the only rookie in the league to rank in the Top 25 of scoring and Top 20 of rebounding. Shes been very, very good.
But she can be better.
I did put her in the game and I took her out really quick, Staley explained of her quick-trigger yank-and-reinstall of Coates midway through Sundays first half. I just wanted to get her mad, I wanted her to have some fire in her. I just told her, I need you to dominate. I need you to dominate the rest of this game.
Its not that Coates was being lazy quite the opposite. Her natural talent and game will be better than almost everyone she faces from night to night.
Staley just wants Coates to sometimes kick it into that extra gear. In the tournament, where its win or go home, she has to be in extra gear as much as possible.
Coates wound up scoring 13 points, yanking 16 rebounds and blocking four shots. Working against Cal State Northridges height, she fouled out Camille Mahlknecht, who had been a handful with four blocked shots of her own, three on Aleighsa Welch.
It was a great performance. Staley wants a duplicate Tuesday against an Oregon State squad boasting four players at 6-foot-3 and a starting center at 6-foot-6.
She just makes sure that I dominate in the post, Coates said before practice on Monday. Make sure Im running the floor. Make sure Im pushing our opponents up the floor. Make sure Im playing solid defense.
Theres also the other motto Staley is forever stressing to her freshman, as assistant coach Nikki McCray relayed one more time to Coates Time to bring us home.
In the past two seasons, USC didnt lose many games but when it did, it was usually because the other team had that big girl in the middle. It wasnt a lack of effort as Staley is fond of saying, teams didnt out-hustle USC, they out-talented USC, because they had a player towering over all of the Gamecocks.
With Coates, the Gamecocks have made the leap from good to elite. She has given USC that extra piece teams can no longer plan to just defend the Gamecocks guards because they knew the posts werent going to be targeted.
Staley keeps reminding Coates of the new game. As good as she is, sometimes she still slips into high-school mode.
Sometimes, Alaina has to be jolted into the moment, Staley said. Shes young. We have to jolt her into playing up to her full potential, because once she does, we look like a different basketball team.
Coates doesnt mind. Its why she picked USC. She also recognizes that as fabulous as her freshman year has been, she wont be thinking about that if the Gamecocks dont keep winning.
Shell only be thinking about what more she could have done.
Sometimes, its me getting scored on, sometimes its getting my blocked shot, Coates said. Just something that happens to me a lot will jump me into the game.
I kind of just had to talk to myself and make sure I stayed focused. Once I was able to get in there and was in there for a couple of plays, I was fine.
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