COLUMBIA — Last month, in front of a roaring home crowd, Dawn Staley’s South Carolina women’s basketball team came agonizingly close to a program-defining win over No. 1 Stanford. But the Gamecocks lost 53-49 and fell to 10-1.

High FiveUSC women’s basketball victories versus teams ranked in the top five:Date Team ScoreJan. 24, 2013 No. 5 Kentucky 55-50 Jan. 14, 1998 No. 5 Vanderbilt 70-66 Feb. 27, 1993 No. 3 Auburn 59-47Dec. 31, 1991 No. 4 Vanderbilt 72-65Dec. 29, 1990 No. 3 Auburn 83-76 Dec. 29, 1989 No. 4 Iowa 82-76 Jan. 23, 1980 No. 4 Tennessee 56-52

But it was obvious Staley had made admirable strides with this team, just as it was obvious last season, her fourth in Columbia, when she brought the Gamecocks to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, where they lost to Stanford.

Staley does not yet have one of the elite programs in women’s college basketball. That much seemed clear as the Gamecocks lost two of their next eight games after playing Stanford, including a 73-53 home defeat to No. 12 Tennessee, a gold standard program in the sport.

But Thursday night brought another opportunity for a signature home win, and this time, the 18th-ranked Gamecocks delivered, beating No. 5 Kentucky 55-50. They hadn’t defeated a top five team since January 1998, when they beat No. 5 Vanderbilt 70-66 at home.

That Vanderbilt win turned out to be uncharacteristic of a team that finished 13-14 and 3-11 in the Southeastern Conference. But just as last season’s win at Tennessee — USC’s first ever there — helped the Gamecocks believe they could compete against the best, Thursday’s victory could bode well for their chances of a deep NCAA tournament run.

This almost certainly will be Staley’s most successful team. Last season, the Gamecocks went 18-15 and 8-8 in the SEC — their most overall wins since they finished 18-15 in 2006-07 and their most league victories since they went 9-5 in 2002-03. Thursday’s victory over Kentucky boosted the Gamecocks to 17-3 and 5-2 in the SEC.

USC, now 1-3 against ranked teams this season, has nine games remaining, all in the SEC, but just two against teams currently ranked. On Feb. 10, they host No. 16 Texas A&M. In their next game after that, they travel to Kentucky on Feb. 14.

“I’m happy for our players because they prepped well all season long and we kept coming up short against opponents like a Kentucky, like the Stanfords and Tennessees,” Staley said.

Staley knows she does not have an offensive juggernaut. She said as much Thursday night. The Gamecocks rank second-to-last in the 14-team SEC with 60.9 points per game and 11th with a field goal percentage of 38.4. But they are first in points allowed (47.7) and field goal percentage defense (34.2). Defense is the foundation of their success, as it was last season.

Forward Aleighsa Welch of Goose Creek High has found a valuable role in Staley’s gritty system. She leads USC in scoring and rebounds (12.4 and 8.4 per game), and again played well in a big game Thursday. She shot 4 of 7, scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Against Stanford, she led USC with 17 points.

Welch, the former South Carolina Miss Basketball, is still just a sophomore, as she continues to show why she was such a valuable recruit for Staley and why the future of Staley’s program seems to get brighter every day.