Red-hot South Carolina comes to town

The Day - - SPORTS - By PETE IACOBELLI AP Sports Writer

Columbia, S.C. — South Carolina coach Dawn Sta­ley does not think her play­ers are done achiev­ing big things, no mat­ter how bad the 12th-ranked Game­cocks looked early on in their first sea­son with­out All-Amer­i­can A'ja Wil­son.

They took some time to ad­just to a score of new­com­ers and fresh faces, start­ing the sea­son 4-4 with losses to No. 1 Bay­lor, No. 7 Ore­gon State and No. 10 Mary­land that made it look like the Game­cocks would not be able to main­tain their top 10 sta­tus the 2017 na­tional champs had reached in Wil­son's four sea­sons.

"I knew a time would come when we would get bet­ter," Sta­ley said Sun­day. That time may be now. The Game­cocks (17-5) have won 13 of their last 14 games head­ing into tonight's lat­est show­down at No. 5 UConn (21-2). Their lone loss in more than two months has come at No. 6 Mis­sis­sippi State. South Carolina has won at ranked op­po­nents in No. 18 Texas A&M and No. 19 Ken­tucky dur­ing that stretch and last time out rolled over Ole Miss 76-42, their largest mar­gin of vic­tory this sea­son.

The Game­cocks are do­ing it in a bit of a dif­fer­ent way than dur­ing Wil­son's time, re­ly­ing on its quick, pesky guards like Tyasha Har­ris and Te'a Cooper to over­power op­po­nents in­stead of re­ly­ing on the post play of the 6-foot-5 Wil­son or 6-4 Alaina Coates.

"Was it painful in the be­gin­ning? Yeah, for all of us," Sta­ley said. "When we saw what we had on the ros­ter and what we work with ev­ery day, we feel like when we get it to­gether, we could com­pete with any­body in the coun­try."

They get that chance against the Huskies, who are 7-0 all-time against South Carolina in­clud­ing 0-6 dur­ing Sta­ley's time.

UConn re­mains skilled and dom­i­nant de­spite los­ing two games a pair of games to Bay­lor and No. 2 Louisville. Sta­ley stood with her mouth open when she was asked if this were a down year for the Huskies. If any­thing, Sta­ley be­lieves UConn is as for­mi­da­ble as ever and the Game­cocks will need big games from Har­ris, Cooper and Alexis Jen­nings to pull off the up­set.

"They're still UConn and they still have time to mold into the great team that they've been," said Har­ris, who's started at point guard since ar­riv­ing three sea­sons ago.

Sta­ley chuck­les about her young team's at­ti­tude to­ward things. The losses or chal­lenges don't seem to af­fect them that much. When prep­ping for the start of SEC play against Texas A&M and star scorer Chennedy Carter last month, Sta­ley said Game­cocks fresh­man guard Des­tanni Hen­der­son, "Well, I can't guard her. But she can't guard me, ei­ther."

Har­ris un­der­stands too well how teams that get knocked around early may not re­cover men­tally, es­pe­cially those with his­to­ries of suc­cess like South Carolina. But the Game­cocks, Har­ris said, took the early de­feats to heart, study­ing the mis­takes and work­ing in prac­tice to elim­i­nate the de­fi­cien­cies.

"It was pretty early on, our ad­ver­sity, but we over­came it and we're gelling to­gether now," Har­ris said. "I'm ex­cited to see us grow­ing."

UConn guard Katie Lou Sa­muel­son said the Huskies want to play a com­plete game against a top op­po­nent.

“It’s been a while since we played well to­gether against a top team and we want to put our best foot for­ward.” KATIE LOU SA­MUEL­SON

"It's been a while since we played well to­gether against a top team and we want to put our best foot for­ward," she said. "We don't want to have these stale­mates when we don't know what we're do­ing on of­fense, or it kind of looks jum­bled. We want to make sure we're ex­e­cut­ing."

Win or lose against UConn, there plenty of hur­dles left for the Game­cocks. They play Ken­tucky at home later this month and close the reg­u­lar sea­son against Mis­sis­sippi State, most likely with an SEC cham­pi­onship and top league-tour­na­ment seed on the line.

Should South Carolina earn a top­four seed to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tour­na­ment, it will have to find a re­place­ment some­where else in the Pal­metto State in­stead of its home arena since the NCAA men's event will fill up the build­ing the same week­end next month.

Sta­ley be­lieves her team is ready for it all.

"I know no­body else thinks this, but it gives us high hopes of get­ting back to (Fi­nal Four site) Tampa with hopes of another na­tional cham­pi­onship," she said.

SEAN RAY­FORD/AP PHOTO

In this Jan. 21 file photo, South Carolina head coach Dawn Sta­ley talks with an of­fi­cial dur­ing a game in Columbia, S.C.

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