Next step for USC is 16-0 — and avoiding Sioux Falls Regional

Head coach Dawn Staley and No. 3 South Carolina can clinch a third straight SEC title outright Thursday at home against Georgia.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s women’s basketball team has joined the exclusive club of programs which have claimed three or more consecutive SEC championships. Now the Gamecocks aim to add their name to an even more select group — and secure a more favorable postseason path in the process.

USC’s victory at No. 24 Tennessee on Monday night secured at least a share of a third straight league title, something only Auburn (from 1987-89) and Tennessee (twice, from 1993-95 and 2000-04) have done. Thursday against Georgia at Colonial Life Arena, the third-ranked Gamecocks can take another step toward potentially becoming just the second SEC squad to finish 16-0 in regular-season league play.

Although 16 teams have finished with unbeaten conference slates since the SEC first added women’s basketball for the 1982-83 season, only Tennessee in 2011 went 16-0, running the table in a league schedule lengthened due to expansion. With four games against unranked foes remaining, USC (24-1, 12-0 SEC) is closing in on becoming just the second team ever to reach that mark.

“I want to win all of them,” said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley. “I want to win all of them. Have I looked at the history and seen what programs have done it, and would we like to be in that number? But we’re going to take one game at a time, and hopefully we can get that done.”

Up four games in the standings with four to go, USC’s third straight SEC league championship is already secure. Given that they win all tiebreakers, so is the Gamecocks’ positon as the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. USC will open in a noon quarterfinal March 4 against the event’s eighth or ninth seed, which right now would be Kentucky or Tennessee.

More uncertain is USC’s NCAA Tournament path beyond the opening two rounds, which will be held at Colonial Life Arena due to the Gamecocks’ positon as a top-16 seed. The regional site nearest to Columbia is in Lexington, Ky., a stepping stone to the Final Four also surely eyed by Notre Dame, which on Monday overtook USC for No. 2 in the AP Top 25.

The Gamecocks remained No. 2 in an intermediate ranking of the top 10 national seeds released Monday by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. USC and Notre Dame each have one loss, by similar margins (12 and 10 points, respectively) to top-ranked Connecticut. And neither of them wants to end up in Sioux Falls, S.D., which is hosting a regional this year along with Lexington, Dallas, and Bridgeport, Conn.

Safe to say, even South Carolina’s dedicated fan base would be daunted by the distance between the Palmetto State and Sioux Falls. The Gamecocks can help themselves Thursday against Georgia (17-6, 7-5), which arrives on a four-game winning streak, and is the next step on USC’s prospective journey to 16-0.

“We’re just going to take each game one at a time,” said Gamecocks guard Tiffany Mitchell. “But of course, when we get on the court, we want to win each game.”