COLUMBIA — Forget a perfect 10 — the South Carolina women’s basketball team is a perfect 20.
The nation’s top-ranked team doubled the best start in school history Thursday night, and continued to storm toward a potential No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown at Connecticut in less than two weeks. A’ja Wilson scored 17, and the Gamecocks’ size and transition game did the rest in an 85-54 victory over Alabama before 11,927 at Colonial Life Arena.
The Gamecocks’ best start to a season had been 10-0, recorded three times — the past two seasons and the 1981-82 campaign. Alaina Coates added 14 as South Carolina (20-0, 8-0 SEC) stretched the program’s longest winning streak with its 28th consecutive home victory, maintaining a perfect run dating back almost two years to a setback to Texas A&M in February of 2013.
“It’s another step on the road,” head coach Dawn Staley said of the record. “I think we do want to enjoy the journey, because it’s a place where we’ve never been. But at the same time, this team is just focused on the next challenge. I don’t think we’re into the record. We’re into the next challenge, and the next challenge is playing at Ole Miss.”
That comes Sunday, in the opener of a three-game road trip which includes two ranked opponents and concludes with a potential battle of the top two teams in the nation at No. 2 Connecticut. That Feb. 9 matchup against the Huskies — which UConn announced this week is sold out — has loomed for weeks as perhaps the biggest regular-season game in school history, and among fans and media the anticipation grows a little more every day.
But not in the USC locker room, Staley said.
“This team staying in the moment,” she said. “They do a really good job. If you bring something to their attention, they really focus on what that is. The talk of it, the anticipation of playing UConn, is there. But we play in the best conference in the county. We’re going to be challenged every single night. If that’s not enough to keep you focused, I don’t know what is.”
South Carolina beat Alabama by 43 on Jan. 8 in Tuscaloosa, but Thursday needed a jump-start from its bench to shake loose the Crimson Tide (12-11, 1-7). Reserves accounted for 48 USC points, and Wilson, Coates and Bianca Cuevas were on the floor during the heart of a 19-3 run which included 11 consecutive made field goals and pushed the Gamecocks’ advantage well into double digits.
“They come at you in waves,” said Alabama coach Kelly Curry. “You look at their four post players, and there’s not a letdown when A’ja comes in, when Alaina comes in, and same thing on the perimeter ... Their depth, that’s the great thing about this team come NCAA tournament time that you’ll see. Depth does matter in this league.”
It may certainly matter over the next 11 days. Ole Miss is 11-3 at home and has a victory over a nationally ranked opponent already this season. Then there’s No. 21 Georgia, where the Gamecocks are 2-10 since joining the SEC. And then there’s UConn, and coach Geno Auriemma, and those nine national championship banners hanging in Gampel Pavilion.
With that gauntlet ahead, no wonder there weren’t any celebrations over 20-0.
“It’s just another milestone in the process of getting to a national championship,” Coates said. “We’re just taking it one game at a time. It’s nice to be undefeated. We want to stay undefeated, of course. We’re trying to have a perfect (record). But we know it’s going to be hard. We’re going to have to fight.”