VIDEO: Dawn Staley
On one hand, there was nothing to be ashamed of. On the other, it was still a loss.
Dawn Staley told her team exactly that.
"I thought they played extremely well," South Carolina's fifth-year coach said after an excruciating 53-49 loss to No. 1 Stanford on Wednesday. "We knew what it would come down to -- our ability to get buckets. We just fell short. We just couldn't put it in."
It was right there. The first win over a No. 1 team in school history. The school record for the most wins to start a season. The opportunity to show the nation that the Gamecocks had not only arrived, but were prepared to kick the gate down and then lock it back up, joining the select circle of elite programs.
But Ieasia Walker missed a tying free throw, and Tiffany Mitchell drove the lane despite USC trailing by three points, and was called for charging. Even after Walker dialed in a long-range 3-pointer to give the Gamecocks one more spark of life, the top-ranked Cardinal (10-0) just had too many weapons.
The Gamecocks (10-1) tiredly, frustratedly, succumbed as Aleighsa Welch inbounded the ball after Toni Kokenis had made two more free throws. The horn went off, and USC lined up for the traditional toast during USC's alma mater.
Even with the applause ringing from a passionate, engaging crowd at Colonial Life Arena, there was a hollow feeling inside.
"It showed the potential of the team we can be," Welch said, as a glassy-eyed Walker sat beside her. "We played a great game. There's not one person on our team that I'm not extremely proud of."
Staley echoed the comments, and offered the usual 24-hour rule of any game. The Gamecocks can think about it for a day, then forget it - in this case, it might behoove them to forget about it sooner since S.C. State visits at noon on Friday.
The loss stung. It was the first time this team had felt it.
But if there was a brightness through the gloom, it was to look at how far Staley had taken the program through five years, that it stood toe-to-toe with one of the nation's elite and was almost, almost able to overcome it. They'll get another chance, a lot of chances, actually, against some of the country's best teams.
And they know that they will get much different results.
"We didn't shock the world, but I think the nation understands the type of basketball we play here at the University of South Carolina," Staley said.
The Gamecocks shot a season-worst 28.6 percent from the field, flummoxed time and again by Stanford's abundant height and its ability to cold-bloodedly even any charge that USC made. The Cardinal's relentless forward, Chiney Ogwumike, bulled inside for 21 points and 15 rebounds (13 defensive) and Kokenis iced the game with six of her 15 points in the final 23 seconds.
Any time Stanford had to have a bucket, it threw the ball to Ogwumike, and she usually responded. USC had to try and even the Cardinal's offensive ability with its speed, and nearly did, but the shots just wouldn't fall.
Built on pushing the ball to posts Ashley Bruner and Welch, the Gamecocks were swallowed by Stanford's height and began to force contested shots. The outside shots weren't there, either, the Gamecocks a mere 4-of-15 from the 3-point line. Welch played a marvelous game, always finding one more rotation to make or one more twist to push the ball off the glass and in, but Stanford always matched her to stay ahead.
Yet, with 4:20 to play, the Gamecocks had one last spurt. Walker smoked a 3 and the Gamecocks led 42-40, until Amber Orrange drove the lane to tie the game once more. The game went back and forth as Sancheon White found her missing shot for a 44-42 lead, then Ogwumike converted a three-point play for a 45-44 advantage.
Welch was fouled and made one of two free throws to knot the score once more, but Mikaela Ruef un-tied it with a lay-in. Walker drove the lane but her attempt bounced out; on the line to tie the game, she missed her first free throw.
The second one went down but the Gamecocks had to foul. Stanford, given an edge, wasn't about to give it away. Despite Walker scoring the last of her 15 points on a 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left, Stanford had too much.
But only a bit too much.
"If you can't score, you can't pull away," Welch said. "We wanted to make sure we kept the game close by continuing to make stops, especially in the first half when scoring wasn't coming too easy. I don't think there was any time that Chiney got an easy bucket. She had a great game, but she had to work for it."
The Gamecocks begin SEC play after two more games and can feel good about where they are. They played tight defense, holding Stanford to 25 points off its average; they didn't give up when their shots wouldn't hit and the Cardinal couldn't miss.
It hurts, but there are a lot of games left to try and soothe the pain.
"I think this team is very confident in its own right," Staley said. "Their confidence stems from experience. I thought we would be able to hold our own. I think it's tremendous to have our program play in these type of games."
"We were pleased with the effort," Walker said. "We just don't want to accept the moral victory. We want to get the wins that are getable."