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Gamecocks ready to take next step

What South Carolina's women's basketball program is attempting to do is an exhilarating process, but it also usually involves some scar tissue.

In short, the Gamecocks are climbing, and "the top" is a realistic goal. But it is, by no means, a guaranteed destination. And nobody knows that better than the person leading this expedition, coach Dawn Staley.

Before any of the current South Carolina players were born, Staley was a high school star from Philadelphia who went to Virginia intent on helping lift that program to new heights. She did that, with the Cavaliers making three consecutive appearances in the Final Four, in 1990-92. A national championship, however, eluded Virginia and Staley.

More than two decades later, she's attempting to guide South Carolina on a similar journey, but one she hopes ends with a massive celebration in April. South Carolina enters 2014-15 as No. 2 in the preseason espnW Top 25 and AP polls, and it is considered one of the best bets of all the schools not named UConn to win the NCAA title.

"It shows the progress that we've made over the past couple of years," Staley said of the lofty ranking behind the No. 1 and two-time defending champion Huskies. "It also shows how respected this program is. We'll take it and face the music and see where we are at the end of the season."

The Gamecocks have earned that respect. They have a returning WBCA All-American in junior guard Tiffany Mitchell and the consensus top recruit in this year's freshman class in wing A'ja Wilson. South Carolina was picked to repeat as SEC regular-season champions. The roster is deep and athletic at every position. Staley thinks as many as nine of the Gamecocks could contend to be starters.

"You create separation as a player in practice," Staley said of how competitive practices usually are for top-level teams. "And then you still have work as a cohesive unit."

This is Staley's seventh season in Columbia, South Carolina, a place that loves college sports and has embraced women's hoops all the more since the Gamecocks have drawn so heavily on local and regional talent. The climb of the program under Staley has maintained steady momentum. The Gamecocks went from a team that won just two SEC games her first year in 2008-09, to a squad that lost just two conference games last season.

All that is the exhilarating stuff. The scar tissue, though, comes from how the Gamecocks have fared in March the past two seasons while making their ascension.

Last year, they lost in the SEC tournament semifinals to Kentucky, yet they still earned a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament. But they fell in the Sweet 16 to freshmen-led North Carolina, which also had defeated South Carolina during the regular season.

And in 2013, the Gamecocks lost in the SEC quarterfinals to Texas A&M and then were a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. But 12th-seeded Kansas upset South Carolina in the second round.

If you look for similarities in what went wrong for the Gamecocks in their four postseason losses of the past two years, you'll see an offense that either sputtered throughout the game or at crunch time. South Carolina scored fewer than 60 points in three of those losses and shot better than 40 percent from the field in only one.

The Gamecocks, quite simply, have not played anywhere near their best at the conclusion of the last two seasons. Staley can remind her players of that as motivation throughout the course of this season, although she likely won't need to.

"The core players we are returning have been there and experienced that, they know what it takes," Staley said. "When you get to Sweet 16 level, those teams have levels of talent that if someone has an off night, someone else is stepping up and hitting shots. Hopefully, we're able to make plays when we need to make them."

And while even the best teams can get into offensive funks, that really shouldn't happen this season to South Carolina. The Gamecocks should be exceptionally difficult to guard. Start with Mitchell, who greatly improved her shot selection last year. She finished at 37.9 percent from the field as a freshman, then at 49.3 percent as a sophomore. Mitchell averaged 15.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists, and she was the coaches' pick for SEC Player of the Year.

Senior forward Aleighsa Welch (13.7 PPG, 7.6 RPG) was the Gamecock's second-leading scorer last season and their emotional leader. She's not a guard, but personality-wise might have the strongest connection to former point guard Staley in her ability to always keep the big picture in mind.

Senior center Elem Ibiam (9.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG), junior guard Khadijah Sessions (7.2 PPG, 2.7 APG) and junior wing Asia Dozier (6.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG) rounded out a starting lineup that really complemented Mitchell and Welch.

"When times get tough, we have to fight through it. We have a bigger target on our backs than ever before." Gamecocks senior Aleighsa Welch

Alaina Coates, a 6-foot-4 center who's one of the most naturally gifted post players not just in the SEC, but the nation, led the way off the bench. She was the league's freshman of the year, averaging 12.3 points and 8.4 rebounds. Guards Tina Roy and Tiffany Davis provided reliable depth on the perimeter.

All those players are back this season and are joined by the much-heralded Wilson, who is from Columbia and was the last of the major high school senior stars of 2014 to announce her college choice. Fans accustomed to watching her prep success got an early look at her college transition Sunday, when she led the Gamecocks with 18 points and 10 rebounds in an exhibition victory against Coker College.

Forward Jatarie White and guard Bianca Cuervas are two other highly prized recruits. White is one of the 10 members of the team who is from either South Carolina or nearby Charlotte, North Carolina. White and Mitchell went to the same high school, Providence Day, in Charlotte.

Cuevas (Brooklyn, New York) and fellow freshman Doniyah Cliney (Newark, New Jersey) probably have the biggest cultural transitions to make, going from the nation's largest metropolitan area to the heart of South Carolina. But one thing that Staley has done very well is encourage strong bonds between the players, their parents, the coaching staff and the growing fan base.

The Gamecocks know what it's like to rejoice in a championship, having clinched the outright SEC regular-season title Feb. 27 with a victory over Georgia in front of more than 12,000 fans at Colonial Life Arena.

But that really ended up being their summit for 2014 -- and in basketball, February is not the time you want to peak.

This season, the Gamecocks might be tested in nonconference play by Southern Cal (Nov. 15) and Duke (Dec. 7), and definitely will be by UConn (Feb. 9). And the SEC is once again a powerhouse league, with No. 4 Tennessee, No. 5 Texas A&M and No. 11 Kentucky also ranked in the AP's preseason top 15.

"We have a lot of games that, at different points in the season, we will be able to gauge where we are as a team," Welch said.

In her first eight years as a college coach, Staley was at Temple, where she could maximize the Owls' "underdog" persona, at least on the national level. And that was still the case in her early years at South Carolina. But the expectations, the vibe and the mindset have all changed for the Gamecocks.

"I think we're still going to have our share of bad days, just like every team," said Welch, always the voice of realism for the Gamecocks. "But even when times get tough, we have to fight through it. We have a bigger target on our backs than ever before."

The NCAA tournament high-water mark thus far in Staley's tenure was a Sweet 16 appearance in 2012, when the Gamecocks lost to Stanford. Making the regional semifinals was an important breakthrough then. But there are bigger walls to scale now, as South Carolina hopes to make it first Final Four appearance.

"We set our minds on the ultimate goal, and that is a national championship," Mitchell said. "I think we have the pieces to do it. It's now working together and meshing that's going to get us to that point."