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Gamecocks grind out SEC road win

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- South Carolina's Dawn Staley said her team's No. 1 ranking in women's basketball really isn't discussed in-house. Which is the standard refrain from pretty much all coaches in every sport.

Whether it's completely true is another matter. One thing is for sure, though: Even if a team that holds the top spot truly isn't talking about it, everybody else is.

And that will continue, of course, after the Gamecocks' closer-than-it-looked 60-49 victory over Missouri on Thursday. Here in the SEC's other Columbia, the undefeated Gamecocks didn't pull away until the final 5 minutes from a pesky Mizzou team that starts three sophomores and is 11-7 overall.

Considering the Gamecocks also were pushed hard at home last Sunday by a Kentucky team that, while ranked in the top 10, doesn't have South Carolina's depth ... well, yes, there will be buzzing about the "numero uno" topic throughout the women's hoops world.

The Gamecocks likely would respond to that with a collective shrug. They still won that Kentucky game 68-60, didn't they? And even if Missouri trailed by just three points with 4 minutes left, it still ended up a double-digit road victory in the rugged SEC, right?

Indeed. It's not that Staley and the Gamecocks would disagree that they have several things to work on, including finding the right offensive combinations. But they have very solid and experienced on-court leaders, particularly guard Tiffany Mitchell and forward Aleighsa Welch, to deal with whatever comes up.

Mitchell led the Gamecocks in scoring Thursday with 19 points; her 3-pointer with 3:57 left in the game began the door-slamming process for South Carolina. Welch had eight points and 14 rebounds, and was her usual physical, tenacious presence on defense.

"These are the players that have been here the longest, and they understand what we want," Staley said. "They know how to execute in tight situations. They've played here and lost before in this building. They know what SEC play is all about. They set the example for how we want to play."

The Gamecocks fell here at Missouri in 2013, when Welch was a sophomore and Mitchell a freshman. South Carolina still went on to the NCAA tournament that season. But contrasting where the Gamecocks were as a program then to now shows how far they've come in a short time.

However, once you're relocated to the penthouse, folks are watching your every move and dissecting what it all means. The Gamecocks won their first three SEC games this year by 19, 24, and 43 points. They've won the past two by eight and 11 points.

They shot just 36.2 percent from the field Thursday, a sharp contrast to their league-leading 48.9 percent coming into the game.

Standout freshman A'ja Wilson, who was averaging 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds, had just three points and four boards, taking only three shots. Elem Ibiam was 0-of-3 from the field, and Welch 3-of-10. The only post player whose offense seemed about as efficient as usual was Alaina Coates, who had 15 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field and 7-of-8 from the line.

In general, the Gamecocks just didn't look like as powerful a force in the paint as we know they are.

"I think the biggest thing is trying to find a rhythm and five [players] on court that really works," Welch said. "In the Kentucky game, we had five during the second half who were just clicking. And coach Staley said sometimes that messes up your substitution patterns, but she's usually going to go with the group that's on a roll.

"The biggest thing is we've been able to grind out SEC wins. A lot of times, it's going to be different people's nights, and you have to kind of run with that."

Speaking of running, that's what Kentucky is known for: racing its opponents up and down the floor as much as possible. Missouri is very different: A team that knows it has to work really hard on defense and then maximize every offensive possession.

To play those two teams back-to-back is a good lesson, particularly for the younger Gamecocks. Staley acknowledged that Thursday's game was one of the rare times this season that Wilson has looked like a rookie. But her teammates' performance kept Wilson from feeling any heat, which is what Staley prefers right now.

Staley doesn't want Wilson to be discouraged about Thursday, because she isn't expected to have it all figured out already.

"Missouri makes you play like that; I think A'ja still has to get used to the physicality of this league," Staley said. "Missouri did a good job of not letting her use all the tools in her toolbox."

However, Mitchell -- who was SEC player of the year last season -- showed herself to be the master craftswoman, to keep the analogy going. She scored South Carolina's first eight points and then made the big shots she had to in the second half. And Welch's work on the boards was critical on a night when the Gamecocks needed -- and got -- a huge advantage in rebounding (51-33).

"We have built a good connection," Welch said of herself and Mitchell. "And the biggest thing is being dependable. Down the stretch in a game, if I kick it to Tiffany, she's going to take that shot. And if she misses it ..."

Mitchell answered, nodding toward Welch, "Then she's going to get the rebound."

The Gamecocks head to Florida on Monday, and then they'll have a week to prepare for Texas A&M visiting South Carolina on Jan. 26. Whether they always "looked" like No. 1 or not Thursday, the Gamecocks' bottom line is still their 17-0 record.

"I like the variations of how we're able to win against different styles of play," Staley said. "I thought our team did a really good job of keeping their composure and just playing through things. Every time we take the floor, we're learning."