STANFORD, Calif. — As South Carolina prepares for the Sweet 16 as the regional’s No. 1 seed, visions continue to dance in their heads. The Gamecocks know this is a business trip, but it’s hard to maintain the tradition of tournament play – never talk about the next step until the one in front of you has been taken.
If USC wins Sunday, it’s on to the Elite Eight. With a win there, the Gamecocks are in the Final Four. Dawn Staley has talked openly about it because that’s the vision she wants her team to have. Being on the cusp of it doesn’t change the approach.
“I think we all do a really good job as far as keeping ourselves and our teammates focused,” forward Aleighsa Welch said. “After the SEC tournament, we came in with a different mindset.”
It also helps to have a constant reminder of the Gamecocks’ previous high-water mark on staff.
After 10 seasons of pro basketball, head manager Petra Ujhelyi returned to USC this past fall to work on her master’s degree and help the team. She sees a lot of similarities with her junior-season squad in 2001-02, which reached the Elite Eight for the only time in USC history (the Gamecocks made it to the 1980 Final Four in the AIAW).
“I feel like what stands out, looking back, is the connections,” Ujhelyi said. “The connection off the court was similar to this team. I feel like that definitely translates to on-the-court performance. You liked the people that you played with. That’s what made us stand out.”
Nobody saw that team coming. The previous two years had yielded 13-15 and 11-17 records, although the 2000-01 squad posted a three-game improvement in SEC play, from 3-11 to 6-8. The problem was that whenever the Gamecocks posted a big SEC win that season, it was quickly forgotten.
“We showed a glimpse of greatness in my sophomore year, but we were just very inconsistent,” Ujhelyi said. “In SEC play, we would blow teams out by 30 and them come back the same week and get blown out by 30.”
USC started 2-0 in the SEC but lost by 54 points to Tennessee, by 29 to Vanderbilt, by 38 to Florida and 37 to Georgia. Still, the Gamecocks were optimistic about 2001-02, returning the bulk of their talent.
With a mix of coach Susan Walvius’ European recruits and some homegrown talent – Shaunzinski Gortman was from Columbia and Keenan High while Jocelyn Penn was from two hours across I-20 in Conyers, Ga. – the Gamecocks went to work with three straight wins. The Southeast raised an eyebrow when, in their fourth game, they played at No. 9 Duke and won 87-81 in overtime.
“Then it was like, ‘OK, this might be our year,’” Ujhelyi said.
Penn and Gortman would combine to average 31.6 points per game. Teresa Geter, another Columbia native, averaged 9.2. Tatyana Troina and Ujhelyi led another group of four players who could score around six points per game, and the Gamecocks had a true pick-your-poison squad.
USC lost its next game after Duke, at archrival Clemson, but then reeled off 12 straight wins, including a win against No. 16 North Carolina and four wins to start SEC play, two over top-15 Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. The Gamecocks finished 10-4 in the SEC for a No. 2 seed in the league tournament – each a high until Staley took over – and then prepared for the Gamecocks’ first NCAA tournament since 1991.
As the No. 3 seed, USC hosted two games in Carolina Coliseum and beat Liberty and No. 19 Cincinnati. Heading to Raleigh for the next round, USC could smell a Final Four berth.
Drake fell 79-65 in the next round, setting up a rematch with the Blue Devils. The Gamecocks couldn’t get over the revenge factor and a pro-Duke crowd in the Triangle, falling 77-68 in the Elite Eight.
The loss stung, but a step had been taken. The Gamecocks followed with another NCAA tournament appearance in 2002-03, but the program under Walvius never again matched those heights. After two losing seasons and three WNIT years, Staley was hired.
Ujhelyi remembers the raucous atmosphere at the venerable Coliseum back then and compared it to the crowd that watched USC clinch the SEC regular-season championship this year. She also sees how this team’s drive mirrors that team’s.
She’s hoping this team can not only match her team, but surpass it. It’s no fun being top dog forever.
“We were just like, ‘They’re in our way, we need to get through them,’ ” Ujhelyi said. “I think we really got it that we had to embrace the opportunity that we had. I’m hoping these girls realize that as well – you only get so many chances. You’re not going to be a No. 1 seed every year.”
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