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After NCAA title as a freshman, Tyasha Harris working hard for more

Tyasha Harris, a point guard on South Carolina's 2016-17 national championship team, leads the SEC with 6.7 assists per game. John Byrum/Icon Sportswire

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Nothing rattles Tyasha Harris. Not even a theater going pitch-dark during a horror film.

"We went to see 'Insidious,' and the crazy thing is, in the middle of the movie, the town had a power outage," Harris said of a recent outing with her South Carolina teammates. "So the movie went down, and they just gave us a free ticket so we could go back and see it. It wasn't that good a movie, though."

A calm floor leader is exactly what South Carolina needs.

The No. 7 Gamecocks (18-3, 7-2) are coming off a game that had very high emotions, a rematch victory over Missouri, one of the teams that have defeated them this season.

And two huge tests are up next. The Gamecocks host No. 1 UConn on Thursday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). Then on Monday they play at No. 2 Mississippi State (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), a rematch of last season's NCAA final.

This is a good time for South Carolina to take a deep breath and refocus. And Harris -- a 5-foot-10 point guard and team captain who showed last season how cool she can be as a freshman point guard for the Gamecocks' national championship team -- has the personality to lead the way. She's third on the team in scoring (11.6 PPG) and first in assists (an SEC-leading 6.7 APG) and steals (55).

Just the same, coach Dawn Staley subtly keeps pushing for more from Harris. How do you motivate someone who won an NCAA title as a starter her first year? You let her know -- in a constructive way -- that she's still on a journey toward fulfilling her potential.

"I've had a number of conversations with Ty, but I have to slowly go into those," Staley said. "Because I don't want her to lose what she already has, but I want her to add to her game. Each year, you have to do that.

"I don't want to pound her with it, because she's certainly not playing bad. She's just not playing as I envision her playing eventually. That's hard, because it's my vision, not her vision."

This is a lot like what counterpart Geno Auriemma deals with in regard to some of his best players, too, including on this year's UConn team. Yes, they're very good. But he knows they can be even better, and wants to push them toward that. But they have to come to that realization, too.

Staley sees that with Harris, and she also understands the most effective way to reach her.

"She works the best with space. I'll say something, and give her time to think about it," Staley said. "Because she's great at processing things. Then she'll come back to me, and that's when I know that she's been thinking about it. That's like clockwork with her.

"She was like that during the recruiting process -- I barely talked to her at first, and then she started calling me, and we had conversations."

Harris, who is from Noblesville, Indiana, made her college decision late: in April of her senior year after considering things from all angles. It turned out to be a great choice. Staley moved Harris into a starting role when the SEC season began last year, and she responded well on a team with veterans like A'ja Wilson, Alaina Coates, Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis.

"I took it upon myself to just be the best I could be, and try to instill trust in my teammates," Harris said of last season. "I gained more confidence, and we just rock-and-rolled from there. It was great."

"She works the best with space. I'll say something, and give her time to think about it, because she's great at processing things. Then she'll come back to me, and that's when I know that she's been thinking about it."

Dawn Staley on how guard Tyasha Harris learns best

Coates, Gray and Davis were all WNBA first-round draft picks in 2017, though. Wilson and Harris returned in their starting roles. But guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore -- who started initially ahead of Harris last year, and then returned to start when Coates was injured -- is out all this season with a knee injury.

Staley said all of this has challenged Harris, who found it easy to lead with older players who empowered her -- but a little more difficult to do that with so many younger players.

"You have to figure out, 'What's going to be the pulse of this team?' " Staley said. "Listen to and observe the personnel you have. Because it's not the same. She was comfortable last year. But I'm making her a little more uncomfortable this year, because I need her to grow and see things as they are for this team."

Harris continues to progress. She had a career-high 28 points in the Gamecocks' loss to Tennessee on Jan. 14, when Wilson was out with an ankle injury. Harris had a leg injury in the following game, a win at Vanderbilt, but returned -- as did Wilson -- for the next game, a win at Kentucky. Harris had a career-high 13 assists versus the Wildcats.

In the Gamecocks' past two wins, Harris had five points, six assists and 13 rebounds against Arkansas, and 19 points, four assists and four rebounds against Missouri.

Harris also leads the team in minutes played by a lot, averaging 32.3 per game. Staley said that's largely why she hasn't always given Harris the toughest perimeter defensive assignment, as she typically did last year.

But there's also this: She wants Harris to reach the point where she asks to have that assignment, no matter how many minutes she plays. Because that will be, in Staley's eyes, another sign of growth.

"When you've been successful, especially so young, you think you know exactly what's coming next," Staley said. "But you never do. Because it's a challenge every day to get better. She's making those adjustments now."