At the SEC coaches' meetings in Florida last spring, South Carolina's Dawn Staley and Missouri's Robin Pingeton agreed it was time to talk and address the acrimony between the schools that occurred last season.
No doubt Monday's game (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) will be very competitive and emotional when the No. 15 Gamecocks and the Tigers -- tied for second in the SEC -- meet in Columbia, South Carolina. That's OK with both coaches; SEC games at their best have that edginess, electricity and fan engagement.
But the hope is that it stays on the right side of all that.
"I think if we play a great game, it's competitive, the crowd gets into it, that's great," Staley said. "I just want it to be good for the game of women's basketball. I think it's a rivalry that can stand for a long time. Twenty or 30 years down the line, I want it to be a good rivalry -- not because of the dark cloud that hangs over two games that we played."
Pingeton and Staley had hoped they could get their teams together before the game. "If we can put a personal touch to it," Staley said, "I think we can get a better understanding of both teams."
But the Tigers didn't arrive in South Carolina until Sunday night, so the meeting didn't work out. Still, Pingeton said she thinks the coaches' communication indicates, "We have an opportunity to make something really positive from this."
That would be a big step forward from where things were a year ago.
Staley was unhappy with the officiating in last season's 83-74 loss at Missouri on Jan. 7, the second year in a row she had complaints with referees there. With just less than three minutes left, she picked up her second technical foul and had to leave the game. Meanwhile, South Carolina fans took exception to some plays made by the Tigers' Sophie Cunningham.
In the teams' rematch at South Carolina on Jan. 28, Gamecock fans booed Cunningham throughout the game. The teams also had a brief scrum in the second quarter of the Gamecocks' 64-54 victory.
A few days later, Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk said on a radio show that as the Tigers exited the court at Colonial Life Arena, "We had players spit on and called the N-word and things like that. It was not a good environment. And unfortunately, I think Coach Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere, and it's unfortunate that she felt she had to do that."
South Carolina conducted an investigation and said it didn't find any evidence of Sterk's claims; the school and Staley called for an apology from Sterk. When neither that nor an SEC reprimand of Sterk happened in a timely fashion, Staley filed a lawsuit. Later the same day, the SEC fined Sterk $25,000. He subsequently apologized, and the lawsuit was settled last May, with $50,000 split between Staley's INNERSOLE charity and legal fees.
While it's unlikely the two sides will ever fully agree on what took place, Staley and Pingeton would like to move on. But will the fans? Both coaches appreciate the passion of the fan base. But both also would prefer things not be "ugly," as Pingeton put it.
"Our fans, their fans -- they go on these Twitter wars, and they won't let it die down," Staley said. "Robin and I have come to terms with where we are."
Both teams are battling near the top of the SEC. South Carolina and Missouri are both 4-1 behind 5-0 Mississippi State. Despite losing SEC legend A'ja Wilson to graduation and WNBA stardom, the Gamecocks are 12-5 overall, with their lone league loss to Mississippi State, 89-74, on Thursday. A post-oriented team during Wilson's time, the Gamecocks are now sparked by guard play, led by Te'a Cooper (12.9 PPG) and Tyasha Harris (10.0).
"All of our goals are still in front of us," Staley said. "I feel the team that we have put on the floor since SEC play started is what I hoped for at the beginning of the season. But we had to get healthy first and then have the chemistry develop."
Missouri's SEC stumble really stung, as a double-digit lead slipped away Jan. 13 at Florida. But the 15-4 Tigers said good came from that: a reminder to push hard through the finish line, which they did in beating Georgia 61-35 Thursday.
"That was a really bad and tough loss in Florida, but when we have those games we always respond really well," Cunningham said. "It brings good momentum for South Carolina."
Cunningham knows she'll likely get booed from Gamecock fans again, and said she doesn't mind. It means opposing crowds care about their team, and she'd rather play in front of a big crowd booing her than a quiet arena.
That said, she and the Tigers also don't want any excessive negativity. As a group, the Missouri players got off social media following their Jan. 6 victory at Tennessee, which had a few contentious moments and subsequent criticism from Lady Vols fans.
"I really do think we have to keep being the best basketball team that we can be," said Cunningham, a senior who leads the Tigers at 15.5 PPG. "If we bring it defensively, and we're patient and poised on offense -- because it is going to be a tough environment there -- but if we focus on Mizzou, we will be fine."
Ultimately, both sides want a game where the play speaks for itself.
"I hope we can have a great competitive game," Staley said, "and then people are talking about that, as opposed to all the other stuff. Because I really don't want to be a part of that."