COLUMBIA — Dawn Staley received a deputy’s badge this week from Richland County Sherriff Leon Lott, who honored the South Carolina women’s basketball coach for her work with youth programs. Staley seems a natural for the position, given the order she’s maintained on her team.
Carrying the mantle of No. 1 for 11 straight weeks? Navigating a slate of SEC opponents overshadowed by the most anticipated regular-season game in the program’s history? Preaching composure to a squad that takes shots — often physical ones — every night? Whether it’s getting roughed up Sunday at Ole Miss or heading to No. 22 Georgia for the final game before a potential No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown at Connecticut, the message is the same.
“Coach Staley always tells us, always keep your composure, stay within the game, don’t worry about the things you can’t control,” said senior forward Aleighsa Welch, a Goose Creek native. “Because at this point, we have way too much to lose to lose our heads or get caught up in things that we have no control over.”
Welch was referring to how several opponents have combatted the bigger Gamecocks (21-0, 9-0 SEC) by getting physical in the hopes of frustrating them. That was certainly the case at Ole Miss, which used a bruising style that produced a nine-point lead before USC won by 18. Staley is familiar with the tactic — she employed it herself back when South Carolina had a smaller lineup — and the Gamecocks are practicing against it now.
“It’s come to a point where we’re almost expecting it, so now we’re practicing it,” she said. “We don’t want to hurt any of our players, but (forward) A’ja Wilson should already feel what an opponent is going to do to her in practice. She should be able to make adjustments in practice. That’s something we’re trying to work on this week, trying to get more physical and trying to play through so much contact.”
It comes back to focus, on the court and off. Thursday’s 7 p.m. game at Georgia (17-5, 5-4) looms as a potential hurdle by itself, given that the Lady Bulldogs have won 18 straight at home, and lost to USC in Athens just twice since USC joined the SEC. But it’s also the precursor to Monday’s clash at UConn, which has become so big that Staley asked her team — how many of you are already thinking about it?
“A lot of them said they were thinking about it,” she said. “But they’re also focused on the task at hand. They’re thinking about it because of the press, their friends, people in the dorms, and all those people who are real curious about it. But our team is a team that’s staying in the moment, and is really, really focused on getting another win on the road.”
That’s the law from Deputy Staley, whose team has always been able to keep its composure — whether in the face of a physical opponent, or big game on the schedule — and in the process, remain No. 1.
“I think it’s just a matter of staying focused,” Welch said. “You have to challenge yourself to stay focused. The moment you look too far ahead, that’s the moment you’re the most vulnerable. That’s when a lot of teams do get beat.”