COLUMBIA - Before the season began, Dawn Staley had high expectations for her South Carolina women's basketball team.
The Gamecocks slowly grew in stature during Staley's first five seasons in Columbia. They reached the 25-win mark in each of the past two seasons, making the NCAA tournament both years. With a young and talented core returning, South Carolina was primed for more success.
But Staley couldn't have expected this.
The Gamecocks have been on a torrid pace this winter, with a 20-2 record and No. 6 national ranking in the Associated Press top 25 poll. South Carolina sits atop the SEC standings with less than a month left in the regular season, one game ahead of Tennessee and Texas A&M.
"It really has caught us by surprise," Staley said last week. "Because I didn't know what kind of team would take the floor. I knew we would work hard. I knew we'd be a little bit bigger. I thought it would take us a while to kind of find an identity from an offensive standpoint and a defensive standpoint.
"I think it goes to show what kind of leaders we have. There are players in our program that have been through it all - Sweet 16, and going back to the tournament. So they're lending their experience from previous seasons to this team, and it's paying big dividends."
Junior forward Aleighsa Welch is one of those leaders. A year after being named to the All-SEC second team, Welch has only gotten better this season - averaging 13.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
It's the team success, not individual numbers, Welch cares about most. As expected from a team leader, she won't allow her teammates to rest on their regular season accomplishments.
"We're all aware of it, but it's not something we come in and we talk about every day," said Welch, who played at Goose Creek High School. "We know every other team that we play is aware of it too. So, you can't get ahead of yourself.
"Still a lot of games left, and that (20-2) start can go down the drain from here if you get too ahead of yourself."
The Gamecocks will have a tough end to their season. Their final three road games will be at No. 16 LSU, No. 15 Kentucky and No. 8 Tennessee. South Carolina's remaining home schedule - Arkansas on Sunday, followed by Florida and Georgia - is far from a breeze.
Maybe that's why Staley won't let her team look ahead. A regular season conference championship would be nice. Ultimately, the Gamecocks strive for postseason accomplishments.
"I think this team has been one that stays in the moment," Staley said. "We need to do what got us here. What got us here is not looking ahead, not skipping over opponents."
Not skipping over opponents. Just pummeling them, one at a time.
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