Inside Gampel, USC’s unruffled nature may prove the key to remaining No. 1

Senior forward Aleighsa Welch and top-ranked South Carolina will try to hand No. 2 Connecticut a rare loss at Gampel Pavilion. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

STORRS, Conn. – Even for a region long accustomed to winter weather, this has been a time to test that New England stiff upper lip. For nearly three weeks now snow has piled up, in some areas 61 inches of it, leading governors to hold daily news briefings and radio broadcasters to use terms that would seem like hyperbole if not for the six-foot drifts outside. Local media is all weather, all the time – how much more snow is coming, where to put it after it’s plowed out of the way, when will it ever stop.

Amid this cycle of plow, scoop, scrape and shovel, in walks a South Carolina women’s basketball team as unaffected by it all as an arctic fox. The legacy of Connecticut basketball is fairly evident once you take the right turn onto Jim Calhoun Way, walk into a practice facility known as the Basketball Champions Center, and look up at the window in Geno Auriemma’s office, which is lined with nine championship trophies accompanied by their cut-down nets. This time of year at UConn, the weather is hardly the most intimidating thing about the environment.

Yes, those 13 championship banners hanging from the rafters at Gampel Pavilion – nine for the women, four for the men – make themselves quite known the moment you step into one of the Northeast’s most famous basketball arenas, a place where the second-ranked UConn women have lost all of 19 (19!) games since the facility opened in 1990 (1990!). But if there’s any team well-suited to saunter into this place with blinders on, it’s the top-ranked and unbeaten Gamecocks, who earlier in the day seemed as loose as a rec team getting ready to hoop it up at the Y.

When Dawn Staley was introduced as one of Geno Auriemma’s assistants for the 2016 Olympic team, the entire USC team stood off to the side and watched. Freshman forward A’ja Wilson even took the microphone and asked a question, getting a playful answer out of the Huskies coach. “No UConn player would ever do that,” one Connecticut beat writer later commented to another. Auriemma runs a squad as finely-calibrated as his screen-and-cut offense, while prank-minded USC players sneak into their head coach’s hotel room on the road.

Now, what that might portend for later Monday night, when the Gampel crowd of over 10,000 is at full throat and the Gamecocks find themselves in the toughest road venue they’ve faced since they last traveled to Tennessee? Let’s just say a four-wheel drive vehicle isn’t the only necessity up here right now. To this point, USC has proven very adept at preserving a singular focus but not being overwhelmed by it, taking its cue from a head coach who mitigates the pressure of being undefeated by reminding her players to enjoy the journey at the same time.

“Our team is pretty loose,” Staley said after the Olympic announcement. “They’re a team that’s focused. There’s no more preparation. We got our preparation in, we got our shootaround in, we got our film session in. Now it’s just time to play the game. I think they’re in a position where they just want to play the game at this point, because they’ve been asked the questions and the buildup has been (there) over the last couple of weeks. Now it’s time to do what we came here to do.”

As much as their height, as much as their depth, South Carolina’s uncanny ability to remain unperturbed regardless of the situation – whether it’s a sold-out Gampel, or Ole Miss and Missouri teams which tried to use physicality to knock USC off its game – may very well be its greatest advantage in an environment which breeds intimidation. If anything, the atmosphere here might have the opposite intended effect, given the chip which digs into the Gamecocks’ shoulders a little harder every time they see UConn receive a handful of first-place in the AP poll.

Monday, that number was eight. As tipoff approached, there were plenty of other numbers on display inside Gampel – which from one end to the other commemorates men’s and women’s national titles, Final Four appearances, conference championships, player of the year awards, retired numbers, and other accolades too many to count. This igloo-shaped building, where the oversized cardboard cutouts in the student section include national championship trophies, is as big a part of the Connecticut attack as Breanna Stewart’s scoring touch or Auriemma’s offense. And South Carolina’s unruffled nature is a big reason why the Gamecocks may leave it with more first-place votes then they carried in.