COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina's student section supplied the boos for Missouri's Sophie Cunningham, and the officials kept everyone on their toes Monday by calling anything that resembled a foul -- and a few things that didn't.
But from the pregame circle both teams formed together for the national anthem, it was clear that the ill will of last season's meeting between the Gamecocks and Tigers here at Colonial Life Arena would not be revisited.
What was evident, though, was just how good No. 19 South Carolina can be when things are working right -- which they did, for the most part, in a 79-65 victory over No. 25 Missouri.
The best player in school history, 2018 WNBA rookie of the year A'ja Wilson, was in the stands in the building she owned for four seasons, and the Gamecocks are still in the process of adjusting to her absence.
But 18 games into their season, the Gamecocks are a good way toward figuring it out. At 13-5 overall and 5-1 in the SEC -- second behind 5-0 Mississippi State -- they're starting to look more like the team coach Dawn Staley envisioned they could be, even without Wilson.
Staley thinks her guard play could be as good as it has ever been. If anything, sometimes it's a challenge to get everyone enough playing time with the mixture of experienced players who have paid their dues and younger ones who are eager for a chance to do the same.
"We have a lot of guards, and it's hard for me to juggle who plays a lot and who doesn't," Staley said. "And I continue to tell them we have to mentally prepare -- whether you play 3 minutes or no minutes or 30 minutes. Just be ready when your number is called."
Monday, fifth-year senior Bianca Cuevas-Moore (14 points) and junior Tyasha Harris (16 points, five assists, five rebounds) helped set the tone on offense and defense. Harris started the game 0-for-6 from the floor. Staley basically told her at halftime, "Don't let that be your stat line when the game is over." Harris was 4-for-6 from the field in the second half.
But every guard the Gamecocks put on the floor contributed something positive -- and we all know what they say about good, deep guard play and NCAA tournament success. They tend to go hand in hand.
Yes, we're talking about the Gamecocks' NCAA tournament prospects again. When South Carolina started this season 4-4, including a loss to Drake of the Missouri Valley, some might have thought this was going to be more of a painful rebuilding season. But it was early, and South Carolina has continued to find its footing. Since the Gamecocks' 94-69 loss to Baylor on Dec. 2, they've lost just one other time -- at Mississippi State on Thursday.
But there were bright spots even in that defeat, a game that was close until the fourth quarter. Guard Te'a Cooper had 27 points against Mississippi State, and the Gamecocks can look forward to hosting the Bulldogs in the regular-season finale March 3.
They've been the two best teams in the SEC the past few years, and it's shaping up to be the same this season.
In beating Missouri, the Gamecocks put aside any lingering bad blood from last season, when the teams had a shoving match here and the fans got on the Tigers -- especially Cunningham. That was followed by Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk's critical remarks about Staley that, all told, ended up costing him $75,000 combined from an SEC fine and a lawsuit settlement.
Staley and Missouri coach Robin Pingeton decided to have both teams gather in the pregame circle to show, as both said, "unity and respect for the game." Both teams were also wearing "We Back Pat" T-shirts in support of the Pat Summitt Foundation and the SEC's focus on that initiative in fighting Alzheimer's disease.
The officials kept a tight rein on things throughout, which made the game feel choppy. It wasn't particularly "chippy," though there was a double-technical in the second half on South Carolina's LeLe Grissett and Missouri's Akira Levy. But even that didn't seem very heated.
Missouri looked tentative in the first half, perhaps a combination of the Tigers wanting to avoid last season's issues and South Carolina's defense making things hard for them. Cunningham -- booed start to finish Monday whenever she touched the ball -- finished with a game-high 24 points, although 14 of those came in the fourth quarter when things had been decided.
Missouri's defense had trouble with post players Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Alexis Jennings -- they combined for 30 points and 13 rebounds -- and the Gamecocks' variety of guards.
"They're hard to guard because they're so well balanced," Pingeton said. "Although they don't have one kid that night after night is knocking down three or four 3s, on any given night, any of them can. So you just never know who's going to have the hot hand."
Cuevas-Moore, who missed last season with a knee injury, was ready last spring to transfer for her final season to West Virginia, then changed her mind and stayed put. That has worked out for her and for South Carolina; she is a streaky player, but her good streaks give the Gamecocks energy.
South Carolina doesn't play again this week, then hosts Vanderbilt, which is winless in the SEC, next Monday. The Gamecocks finish the month at No. 15 Kentucky on Jan. 31. Their February slate includes a nonconference trip to UConn on Feb. 11.
Staley knows there are still going to be some rough patches, but the Gamecocks are clearly a different team -- in a good way -- from the one that started the post-Wilson era in November.
"Hopefully, we'll continue to get better," Staley said. "We put a lot of time, effort and energy into playing Mississippi State, and this could have been somewhat of a trap game for us. But it wasn't."