Retooled roster, Olympics ahead for Staley after ‘step back’ this past season

Head coach Dawn Staley's South Carolina team is ranked No. 5 in the new AP Top 25 women's basketball poll.

File, Charlie Neibergall/AP

COLUMBIA — It’s difficult to imagine a 33-2 season as a step back. But that’s exactly how high the bar has been set by the South Carolina women’s basketball team.

The Gamecocks this past season set a program record for winning percentage and became just the second SEC team to go undefeated through a 16-game league schedule. But fair or not, the enduring memory of the 2015-16 campaign will be an off night in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a loss that left USC two games short of a return trip to the Final Four.

“It’s obvious we had expectations of going further than the Sweet 16,” head coach Dawn Staley said Monday. “But I think at points throughout our journey, we always have to take a step back. We don’t want to. But you have to take a step back to move yourself forward. I just thought looking at how it ended up, we took that step back. How we move forward will be on us.”

USC’s season ended March 25 in a loss to Syracuse in the NCAA regional semifinals. With three starters leaving the Connecticut team that has won the past four national crowns, an opportunity could be there for the Gamecocks — who have been a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in each of the past three years and shape up a top-five squad next preseason despite some roster turnover of their own.

The Gamecocks said goodbye to five seniors, among them All-American Tiffany Mitchell, drafted by Indiana with the No. 9 overall pick in last week’s WNBA draft, and shooter Tiffany Roy, who was invited to training camp by the Atlanta WNBA franchise. USC also had three players transfer out of the program — guard Shay Colley in mid-year and forward Jatarie White and guard Kaydra Duckett after the season.

USC will move forward with a roster that promises to be much smaller outside of All-American forwards A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates. Guards Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, transfers from Georgia Tech and North Carolina, respectively, are now eligible to play. And of the four high school players signed for next season, three are guards — including Tyasha Harris, ranked the No. 27 prospect nationally.

“With as much talent a we have, we have a lot of versatility. We have to come up with ways in which we feel best suits the personnel we have,” Staley said in a season wrapup with reporters.

“Obviously, we’ve got an incredible frontcourt in Alaina and A’ja. We’re bringing in a young gun in (freshman forward) Keke Harrington that’s a lot different from both of them. If we have to have a three-post rotation, I’m sure they don’t mind that. The more minutes that they can play, the better.”

Staley said she’s not actively recruiting anyone else at the moment, “but if something comes up, and we feel like they can help our team, we’ll certainly look at it seriously,” she added. Later this spring she’ll visit WNBA training camps as part of her duties as an assistant with the U.S. Olympic team, which will hold training camp in July in advance of the games in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Davis and Gray, both All-ACC players at their former schools, sat out last season. Although they could practice with the team, “there still will be some transiton for them,” Staley said. “They still haven’t prepared for a game that they’ve been able to participate in. … Although it may look lke it’s an easy transiton, it is not. The responsiblity of players we expect to play a lot of minutes, to start — it’s a different mindset.”