No. 1 South Carolina looks to get back to winning ways

Sports

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)South Carolina coach Dawn Staley wants her top-ranked team to take a peek at the bigger picture and know their goals are all still reachable.

The Gamecocks, who returned to No. 1 just a few hours earlier, had lost for just the second time this season with a 63-59 overtime defeat at No. 2 UConn. The ranking will certainly slip. The focus on the big picture, though, should get clearer for Staley’s young team.

”I know they want to win the SEC regular season, they want to win the SEC Tournament, they want to win the national championship,” Staley said Wednesday. ”I think sometimes you’ve got to peek up and see exactly what’s in front of you.”

South Carolina (15-2, 10-0) returns to the court Thursday against Missouri (7-7, 3-6) as it seeks its 30th straight win over league opponents.

The Gamecocks have gone 47-3 the past two seasons with losses to non-conference, ranked opponents in Indiana last season, and North Carolina State and the Huskies this year. The last time they had consecutive defeats was in 2018-19 with losses to Texas A&M to close the regular-season and Arkansas in their first SEC Tournament game that year.

That was before the core of South Carolina’s team in forward Aliyah Boston and guards Zia Cooke and Brea Beal were part of the program.

”You win some, you lose some, but we’re going to go back to the drawing board and figure it all out,” said Cooke, the team’s leading scorer.

There’s a strong history the Gamecocks will regroup strongly. After the Indiana loss in November 2019, South Carolina finished the year on a 26-game winning streak that included the SEC Tournament title before COVID-19 canceled the NCAA Tournament.

Following a 54-46 loss to the No. 4 Wolfpack on Dec. 3, South Carolina won 12 in a row before facing UConn.

”A loss is never something that’s easy to brush off,” said Boston, who’s averaging 13.9 points and 11.5 rebounds a game. ”But our goals are still in front of us and we’re going to be locked in and continue to push through.”

The team had Tuesday off after arriving back from Connecticut, but returned to work Wednesday eager to get back on the winning track.

”They’re focused,” Staley said. ”I don’t like losing, but I also like lessons they can learn only from losing. If you try to teach some of the stuff we’re teaching today when we’re winning, it goes in one ear and out the other.”

Those lessons were clearly centered on offensive execution. Staley was pleased her team held the high-scoring Huskies to a season-low 63 points. Her disappointment was in the way too many close in and open shots the Gamecocks missed.

South Carolina’s trio of starting guards in Cooke, Beal and Destanni Henderson were a combined 12 of 39 from the field. The Gamecocks made only two of their last 14 field-goal attempts after taking a 54-50 lead with three minutes left in regulation.

”It’s everything we did on the offensive end,” Staley said. ”We didn’t make them pay offensively.”

Staley believes her team will take the lessons from the loss and use them in a positive manner down the stretch, although the Gamecocks still must face No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 16 Tennessee and No. 20 Kentucky in their final six games.

”They’re very receptive to getting better,” Staley said of her team. ”They’re not used to waking up hungover (with a loss) like we have been over the past two days. Just to get back in the gym and get back in the swing of things, I think we’re ready.”

More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

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