Gamecocks’ women’s team aims to avoid another late-season letdown

Richard Shiro/AP South Carolina's Aleighsa Welch and the No. 2 Gamecocks close the regular season at Kentucky on Sunday.

The last time South Carolina celebrated a conference championship in women’s basketball, the hangover was a costly one.

The Gamecocks’ clinching of their first SEC crown a year ago was followed by losses in two of their next three games, an uncharacteristic lapse for a squad which had suffered just two setbacks all season to that point. Memories of that time are certainly fresh as No. 2 South Carolina closes its regular season Sunday at No. 13 Kentucky with the outright league title on the line.

“We’ve put ourselves in this position, and we don’t want to have a letdown,” said USC head coach Dawn Staley. “I think last year we had a letdown when we clinched here against Georgia, and then we went to Tennessee and played them. And it had a trickle-down effect going into the SEC tournament. So we want to end on a high note, and go into the SEC tournament playing our best basketball.”

USC secured at least a share of the league crown with Thursday’s victory over No. 11 Mississippi State. Last season South Carolina clinched the program’s first SEC title with a victory over Georgia in its home finale, and five days later closed the regular season with a loss at Tennessee. It was more of the same in the SEC tournament in Nashville, where USC beat Georgia in the quarterfinals, only to lose to Kentucky in the semis.

“You really don’t want to face the disappointment we felt last year with the SEC tournament,” said senior forward Aleighsa Welch from Goose Creek. “... By no means did we play to our ability, and you never want to walk out feeling that way.”

A USC squad that had been 27-2 after clinching the SEC title was never the same, suffering three losses in its final six games, including a season-ending setback to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament. No wonder, then, Staley is stressing to her Gamecocks (27-1, 15-0 SEC) the need to finish the job this time around.

“I think this team is ready for the challenges of postseason,” she said. “It starts with Aleighsa Welch. I thought she did a tremendous job the last few games out, just getting her head right. Because I don’t think her head was where it needed to be last year at this time, and for her to exorcise those demons is a great thing. She’s a great example of, set the stage for the rest of the team to be able to take on these challenges.”

It certainly helps that, unlike last season, USC still work left to do. Although South Carolina beat Tennessee last week, the SEC uses head-to-head tiebreaks only to determine tournament seeding. That means the Gamecocks would share the league title should they stumble in Sunday’s 5 p.m. game at Kentucky (20-8, 9-6), and the Lady Volunteers win their finale the same day against Vanderbilt.

“You don’t want to share,” Welch said. “Especially when you’re in full control of your destiny. We know what we have to do, and we don’t want to settle for being co-champions.”

South Carolina also could complete a perfect run in conference play, joining Tennessee in 2011 as the only SEC teams to finish unbeaten since the league schedule expanded to 16 games prior to the 2009-10 campaign. But Staley has much loftier goals in mind.

“Yeah, we want to win outright,” she said. “But we want to play well. We want to play well going into postseason play.”