MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (12-14, 4-9 SEC)
NO. 15 SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (21-5, 9-4)
When: 3 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Sr. (9.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg); G Sancheon White 5-10 Sr. (4.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-7 Fr. (9.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 So. (12.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 Sr. (9.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg)
Mississippi State's probable starters: G Katia May 5-2 Jr. (5.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg); G Kendra Grant 5-11 So. (12.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg); G Darriel Gaynor 5-6 Sr. (5.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg); F Carnecia Williams 6-3 So. (8.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg); F/C Martha Alwal 6-4 So. (12.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina broke a two-game losing streak in its last game. …. USC won the first meeting 60-46 on Jan. 6 in Starkville. … Mississippi State leads the all-time series 16-12 but trails 8-5 in Columbia. … One of two remaining home games for the Gamecocks. … Mitchell may come off the bench in favor of Khadijah Sessions starting. Coach Dawn Staley switched the lineup for the first time all season against the Rebels to get some more energy off the bench. … Welch has 107 offensive rebounds, fourth in school single-season history. … Bruner has three double-doubles in her last four games. … USC is ranked No. 15 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.
Next game: USC tips off at Missouri at 8 p.m. on Thursday.
There is no countdown to the next plateau, not in her head. There are only two records that are on constant repeat.
Dawn Staley is closing in on another milestone in her distinguished coaching career. With two more SEC wins and five more overall wins, she will again improve her conference and overall win totals over the year before. Staley has done it every year, and even after last year's 25-win season (10 SEC), the No. 15 Gamecocks are looking good to do it one more time, standing at 21-5 (9-4) with three games to play.
They're getting closer, with another opportunity today against Mississippi State. Is Staley thinking about it?
"No," she said, bluntly. "Actually, I think about Year 1, when the wins didn't come by quite often. I think that is the thing that motivates me, to not ever have that kind of season again."
In her first year with the Gamecocks, USC went 10-18, 2-12 SEC, Staley trying to take a 16-16 team that she inherited and immediately turn it around. The Gamecocks won some games, but were ultimately undone by season-ending injuries to seniors Demetress Adams and Brionna Dickerson, within three weeks of each other.
Nobody blamed Staley for it. Injuries happen, and the program was viewed as slipping after back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2002 and 2003 resulted in two disastrous years, then three straight trips to the WNIT. The Gamecocks had leveled off, and nobody wanted to see that after they had experienced great success.
Staley quickly righted the ship, improving to 14-15 (7-9 SEC) the next season, then reaching the WNIT with an 18-15 (8-8 SEC) season in 2010-11. Last year was the one she had been waiting on, her group of seniors leading the run to a wonderful year, but even when they left, the foundation had been set. USC barely skipped a beat from last year to this year.
Yet even with that, Staley isn't thinking about how close she is to setting new marks. That first year still lingers.
"We do have to make up for that season," Staley said.
Coming off their second and last bye week of the season, the Gamecocks are hoping to keep doing that. USC will get another break after the SEC tournament, until it finds out its NCAA destination, so the goal is to win the next three games, see where it's placed in the SEC tournament (a fifth seed seems most likely), and go from there.
The Bulldogs, which USC beat for its first SEC win, may have something to say about it. While not boasting a great record, MSU may force the Gamecocks into trying to win from their weak spot - the free-throw line.
"The last time we played them, a lot of it was having to make free throws," Staley said. "They may put us on the line."
The Gamecocks were able to make far more than enough to win in the first game, and are hoping a week's rest has them ready to do the same today. Aleighsa Welch has been dealing with a sprained ankle while Elem Ibiam had surgery to repair a broken nose - those two are vital to USC's success over the next three weeks.
Nationally, USC is projected as a four-seed for the NCAA tournament, and the time has come that the Gamecocks have to begin thinking about it. Ignored or accepted, the talk is there.
"We do pay attention to all of it, whether it's facts or fiction, it's our sport," Staley said. "The first three years that I was here, there wasn't any talks of South Carolina and postseason play. We want to be in the talks. The top teams in the country are being talked about, we want to be one of that number."
Even if that number doesn't sit beside the others in her head.