Schedule could allow USC to remove doubt

South Carolina's Aleighsa Welch, right, celebrates with teammate Khadijah Sessions after making a basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, in Columbia, Mo. South Carolina won the game 60-49. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Despite an unbeaten record and now 10 weeks perched at the nation’s highest ranking, the South Carolina women’s basketball team still has its doubters.

That much is evident in the handful of No. 1 votes second-ranked Connecticut receives each week in the AP Top 25. But the Gamecocks’ upcoming schedule is loaded with ranked opponents from this week all the way to the SEC tournament, putting USC in a position to quell the remaining outside skepticism that even players can sense.

“We still have a chip on our shoulder,” said senior forward Aleighsa Welch, a Goose Creek native. “We still come out every night feeling like we need to gain respect, because a lot of people don’t think we deserve to be in the position that we’re in. But we just take it in stride. It takes time for people to get used to it. But as long as we’re used to it, that’s the only thing that matters.”

Despite its SEC title and No. 1 NCAA tournament seed last season, South Carolina (18-0, 6-0 SEC) isn’t one of the traditional powers in women’s college basketball. The Gamecocks don’t have a national championship pedigree, and with such unparalleled size inside, they don’t play the same style that many women’s programs do.

No wonder, then, television analyst and Mount Pleasant resident Debbie Antonelli is often asked why she votes South Carolina No. 1 in the AP poll.

“I get a lot of this — ‘Is South Carolina really that good?’ I get a lot of that,” said Antonelli, who works with several different television networks and calls multiple games each week. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? Have you seen them?’

“The style that they play is not the style Connecticut plays. Connecticut plays open low block, pass-and-cut, Princeton offense. (South Carolina) has a totally different set of personnel and low post game, and a size factor no one else has. So I get a lot of, ‘Are they really that good?’ I’m an AP poll voter, and I’ve had people ask if I would consider taking them off the top line and putting Connecticut there. No way. I’m not moving them.”

The upcoming schedule gives head coach Dawn Staley’s team the opportunity to do plenty of convincing on its own. Six of the Gamecocks’ final 11 regular season games are against opponents currently ranked, a stretch that begins Monday with a 7 p.m. game against No. 10 Texas A&M (16-4, 4-2) on ESPN2. USC also travels to No. 22 Georgia and No. 14 Kentucky, and hosts No. 5 Tennessee and No. 18 Mississippi State before heading for the SEC tournament.

And then there’s the centerpiece of it all — a Feb. 9 game at No. 2 Connecticut.

“It’s perfect. It’s perfect timing, perfect place,” Antonelli said. “They’re not going to have any pressure on them as the No. 1 team going up there, because no one expects them to win. It’s a perfect storm for Dawn.”

It certainly helps that the Gamecocks are an even-keeled group who have embraced their status as Final Four contenders from the opening day of practice. South Carolina is one of just two unbeaten squads left in the country, along with Princeton. And ultimately, winning takes care of everything, regardless of where a team is ranked.

“We’ve got really level-headed players,” Staley said. “I think that’s partly because our coaching staff is always on them about our shortcomings. So we know that we’re not a finished product. We’re working toward that. So they feel a little bit of always trying to get better, and not hanging their hats on being the No. 1 team in the country.”