Dozier’s return bolsters third-ranked Gamecocks for season’s stretch run

South Carolina wing Asia Dozier returned to the starting lineup this week after missing five games with a right hand injury. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

COLUMBIA — Just in time for the postseason, third-ranked South Carolina is getting healthy and beginning to look like its old self again.

USC is coming off its most complete effort in weeks, a 20-point trouncing of Alabama that also marked wing Asia Dozier’s return to the starting lineup. The Gamecocks (26-1, 14-0 SEC) are two wins from becoming just the second team to finish the regular season 16-0 in SEC play, a quest that continues at 9 p.m. Thursday at Ole Miss.

South Carolina’s regular-season finale is Sunday at home against LSU. With tournament time approaching, the Gamecocks are again close to having a full bench — Dozier returned from a right hand injury, guard Bianca Cuevas returned after head coach Dawn Staley sat her for one game, and forward Jatarie White is beginning to practice again after missing time with an illness.

Staley said White remains a question mark for Ole Miss (10-17, 2-12), depending on how the sophomore feels in shootaround Thursday afternoon. But for a team that used just eight players in its last home game — and battled what Staley called mental fatigue as a result — the increased depth arrives at a perfect time.

“It feels different. It feels like we’re moving in the right direction, getting the production that we need, getting just the confidence,” Staley said Wednesday. “When you’re down a player or two, you feel it. You feel it in practice, because everybody has to play a lot more reps then they usually do.”

Dozier, a senior from Columbia, hurt her right hand Jan. 31 at Texas A&M. An injury first called day-to-day wound up sidelining her for five games spanning nearly a month. “Initially, not knowing how long it would take for me to get back out there was kind of frustrating,” she said.

“I got to see a lot just sitting on the sideline. So to be able to bring some of what I saw from the sidelines to the court, to be able to bring some of that leadership out there, was a great feeling.”

Less of a scorer than a steadying presence on the floor, Dozier started and played 16 minutes at Alabama, hitting one 3-point shot and bolstering USC’s depth in the backcourt. Staley expected the effects of the injury to linger, especially since Dozier is now playing with tape on her right hand.

“I just kind of threw her out there, because I wanted her to psychologically get over (it),” Staley said. “The hand will hurt, but it’s not going to hurt for the same reason it hurt two weeks ago. It’s going to hurt because she’s got more activity doing things with it. It just felt really good to have her out there.”