FURMAN PALADINS (3-4)
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (9-0)
When: 3 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
Furman's probable starters: G Teshia Griswold 5-9 Sr. (16.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg); G Kaitlin Murphy 5-7 Sr. (5.1 ppg, 1.7 rpg); G Janice Roberts 5-10 Jr. (3.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg); G Holli Wilkins 5-11 Fr. (3.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg); F Brittany Hodges 6-1 So. (7.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Sr. (8.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg); G Sancheon White 5-10 Sr. (6.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-7 Fr. (10.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 So. (12.0 ppg, 10.2 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 Sr. (12.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina's last game before the exam break. … USC is trying to match the best start in school history, set in the 1981-82 season. … For the first time under coach Dawn Staley, neither of the team's top two scorers is a guard. … Welch leads the SEC with five double-doubles, a figure that also ranks eighth in the country. … USC is fifth in the nation in scoring defense. … USC leads the all-time series 12-1, and has won four straight. … Furman's second-leading scorer and top rebounder, Sarah Durdaller, will miss the game due to injury and may not return until after Christmas. … The Gamecocks received 40 votes in this week's Associated Press Top 25 and are ranked No. 21 in this week's USA Today/ESPN Top 25.
Next game: USC hosts No. 1 Stanford at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 19.
Just call it "F and F Week."
"I think our players have too much on their plates with Furman and with finals," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said on Friday. "Stanford will come. We'll have plenty of time to prepare for Stanford."
The Gamecocks (9-0) will have 10 days off after today's game hosting the Paladins, which means they'll have 10 days to finish up the academic semester and then think about where they are. A win today ties them for the best start in school history, and then comes the matchup.
Top-ranked Stanford comes to Columbia on Dec. 19, an early-season test to see just how good this USC edition is. The Cardinal knocked the Gamecocks from the NCAA tournament last season, but is still going strong - one of their signature wins was beating Baylor on Nov. 16, ending the defending NCAA champion Bears' 42-game winning streak.
Staley was naturally asked if she was concerned about overlooking Furman (3-4) to Stanford. She said the coaches had started at least thinking about it, but the players were concentrating on today's game and then the other side of being a student-athlete.
Stanford comes later.
"Our thing right now is we need to play at a higher level, the highest level of basketball," forward Ashley Bruner said. "We can't sink down to where their level might be. If they come in not playing well, we've got to play our basketball at a higher level."
Staley feels better prepared for Furman, due to a week-long break between games. USC got right back on the horse after winning the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam, coming out sluggish against Drexel four days after its last game. The Gamecocks won in overtime, then headed back on the road to Seton Hall for another hard-fought win.
Being back in Columbia for a while - Furman starts a five-game homestand, including the first SEC game - has USC rested and prepared. The practices have been spent working on the weakest spot of the Gamecocks' attack.
"We're really concentrating on free throws, just trying to do some different things, trying to get them to compete, trying to get them to rejoice in making a free throw," Staley said. "We just want to try to build on one make at a time."
The Gamecocks, as they were last year, remain a difficult-to-watch team at the charity stripe. USC is hitting only 50.9 percent of its free throws, and while it hasn't cost it a game, Staley knows that the moment may come where somebody's on the line, needing to swish a basket to extend or win a game.
She's approaching the mental side of it. Every make in practice is an extra whoop or holler, pat on the back, anything to get some good feeling into the shooter. Otherwise, the shooter has time to think, the worst thing any shooter can do - thinking brings forth the thought, "What if I miss?"
"I think you just need to voice when something good happens from the free-throw line," Staley said. "Because we have a lot of drudgery when it comes to shooting free throws, so we want to enjoy each step of the journey and end up setting goals for ourselves in making free throws."
The rest of the approach is fine. The Gamecocks, even when they've been off, have won every game they've played. Staley sees the same intensity that she's seen all year.
"This was a good week for us," she said. "I thought we didn't quite recover from the Virgin Islands that week we returned, we got right back to a game, then had to go on the road. This week, we did some individual stuff, some fundamental stuff, had shorter practices, we got rid of the morning practices and just practiced in the afternoon. I think our players really enjoyed that."
As well as they'll enjoy getting through exams. After that, it's just straight concentration on basketball for a while - and a game that could really target USC as the team to watch this season.