Survive and advance.
Dawn Staley didn’t utter that exact phrase Friday night after South Carolina women’s basketball held off Alabama, 75-63, in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.
But that was the gist of her message when asked how she and the Gamecocks would move forward from a game in which they jumped out to a massive 27-point lead, playing as well as they have all season — only to let it nearly slip away and get outscored over the final 30 minutes.
“I like getting out to a big lead, obviously. But we still have to coach them through those moments. The most important thing is to be able to continue to coach them the next day. Like we are able to continue to coach them the next day,” Staley said. “Some teams are going to leave here, some of them will be NCAA tournament bound and some of them won’t. But we lived to see another day, to continue to coach them to a place in which they’re getting better and we’re getting better as a team.”
The Gamecocks will likely have to be better Saturday — they’re playing a Tennessee squad that handed them one of their four losses on the season. The No. 3 seed Lady Vols held off a feisty Ole Miss squad to make it to the semifinals, after Staley spoke to reporters following win over Alabama. But even if she didn’t know the opponent at the time, she had a clear message on what USC had to do.
“Our team is really nice. We need to figure out how to continue being this type of nasty and stay energized,” Staley said. “I did have to tell them during a timeout, a nice team is not going to win a national championship nor an SEC tournament championship. We got to find some grit. … At this time of the year, you just got to make more plays. Whether we play Ole Miss or Tennessee, we just have to make more plays on both sides of the ball at this time. It’s not going to all look pretty.”
That message is particularly urgent considering the regular season matchup between USC and UT. In mid-February, the Lady Vols stormed back to erase a 15-point Gamecock lead in the second half. Afterward, Staley made reference to making plays just like she did Friday.
“They flat out beat us — no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Staley said after the Tennessee loss. “They put us back on our heels. They made big plays, they made basketball plays. And we didn’t.”
Given that history, South Carolina may enter Saturday’s contest feeling like it has a little extra to prove. The Gamecocks already consider themselves underdogs after entering the tournament as the No. 2 seed behind Texas A&M
“We definitely are not at ease,” sophomore guard Zia Cooke said. “We’re going to play each game the same way. Like I said, we’re the underdogs; no one likes that. We got a point to prove. We’re not at ease. We’re going to keep the course and keep moving.”
On the other side, Tennessee seems just as eager to claim the mantle of underdog — Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper called the Gamecocks the most experienced team in the tournament, and senior guard/forward Rennia Davis said her team is motivated to prove their first win over South Carolina wasn’t a “fluke.”
Regardless of who is actually favored, both teams will enter the Saturday evening matchup with a little weariness — Cooke and sophomore forward Aliyah Boston each played at least 34 minutes against Alabama, and Davis and junior guard/forward Rae Burrell both played at least 36 minutes. Both coaches, though, downplayed any suggestion that any player would be limited.
“Zia will be ready to go,” Staley said of her guard, who played 37 minutes. “She’s probably the person that can play the most minutes and be ready the next day. I mean, she loves basketball. She loves being out there. She’s highly competitive. She has opportunity on the floor to rest.”
NEXT USC BASKETBALL GAME
What: SEC tournament semifinals
Who: No. 2 seed South Carolina vs. No. 3 seed Tennessee
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville
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