ATHENS, Ga. — Dawn Staley walked toward the tunnel, and was greeted by a standing ovation and a phalanx of outstretched hands. The coach of South Carolina’s top-ranked women’s basketball team beamed and slapped high-fives as four busloads of Gamecocks fans cheered and chanted, kicking off a victory celebration which doubled as a send-off.
No question, there was plenty for USC faithful to applaud after South Carolina came to Stegeman Coliseum and held No. 22 Georgia to its lowest point total in more than seven years. But the 58-35 victory Thursday was also the final step before the most anticipated regular-season game in the program’s history, and allows the Gamecocks to carry a perfect record into the lair of second-ranked and nine-time national champion Connecticut.
“I think it’s good to get the win so the build-up is there,” Staley said. “UConn does a have a game on Saturday, but I think it’s important for us to kind of play well from a defensive standpoint. Our offense still needs a little bit of work, but when you can defend and prevent people from scoring, you give yourselves a little bit of a cushion.”
Barring a shocker Saturday when Connecticut plays at Memphis, Monday’s showdown in Storrs will indeed be the No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown many have long anticipated it to be. The Huskies held the top ranking until their 47-game winning streak was snapped Nov. 17 in an overtime loss at Stanford, and the Gamecocks have occupied the No. 1 spot ever since.
“It’s UConn,” said reigning SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell, who scored 14 Thursday. “It’s hard to overlook them. I know people are waiting for this game, but we just took each game, and now we’re ready to play them.”
The final hurdle before the trip to UConn turned into a defensive clinic by a USC team playing without leading rebounder Alaina Coates, serving a one-game suspension for what Staley called a violation of team rules. The Gamecocks (22-0, 10-0 SEC) tied a season-high with 10 blocked shots, and forced Georgia to shoot 20 percent from the floor. Georgia was held 18 points below its previous scoring low this season, and to its lowest total since tallying 34 in a loss to Rutgers in December of 2008.
“Our defense has gotten better each and every time we’ve stepped on the floor,” Staley said. “It’s become contagious.”
Offensively, freshman guard Bianca Cuevas put on a show, following her 21-point effort Sunday at Ole Miss with a team-leading 16 against the Lady Bulldogs. South Carolina broke the game open in the first half with an 18-3 run sparked by Cuevas, who started it with a 3-pointer and a pull-up jumper from the baseline, and added a transition layup later on.
“Bianca is a great boost off the bench,” Mitchell said. “She’s instant offense.”
Georgia coach Andy Landers was well aware of that. “I told the kids before the game that she’s no joke, this kid is real,” said Landers, whose team lost its third straight game in a stretch of four consecutive contests against top-11 opponents. “I put her on the board in a different color than everybody else. And I thought she came in and played really well. She created the separation in the first half.”
Georgia (17-6, 5-5) played without two of its top three scorers — guard Shacobia Barbee, who was lost for the season after suffering a broken fibula last week, and forward Krista Donald, suspended due a violation of team policy. “We were shorthanded tonight, but that’s not an excuse,” said Landers, whose team suffered its first home loss this season, and had an 18-game winning streak at Stegeman Coliseum come to an end.
With the 6-4 Coates suspended, USC was shorthanded as well. South Carolina’s inside game was further hamstrung when A’ja Wilson and Elem Ibiam got into foul trouble. In came freshman Jatarie White, who has missed 12 games this season — nine due to a stress fracture in her foot, and three more due to illness — and delivered five points and a career-high seven rebounds in 21 minutes of work.
“When (Coates) is not playing, it leaves a big void of playing time,” said Staley, who confirmed that Coates would return for the UConn game. “I was glad we were able to insert Jatarie in. She’s been wanting to play for a long time, and she’s more healthy than she’s ever been. It’s great we got her some minutes so she can feel a little more comfortable.”
White, a 6-4 Charlotte native who hadn’t played since Jan. 19 at Florida, found out in the pre-game meeting Thursday that she’d be called upon. She checked in along with Wilson seven minutes into the game. “I was kind of nervous knowing I don’t get many minutes, and now I was going to play more,” she said. “I just had to take it in and relax and be confident in myself.”
Aleighsa Welch of Goose Creek added 14 rebounds in an effort that netted just South Carolina’s third win in Athens since joining the SEC in 1992. But that rare victory was only a precursor to what looms next — a sold-out Gampel Pavilion, where Connecticut is an audacious 299-19 all-time, and has won 147 of its past 151 games. And unlike Thursday, there will be no buses full of USC fans to cheer the Gamecocks on.
“We’re going to treat it like any other game,” Mitchell said. “Just because they’re UConn, we’re not going to do anything different. We’re going to treat them like it’s a regular game.”