South Carolina's bench could trouble Irish

TAMPA, Fla. -- A'ja Wilson could be the national freshman of the year. Alaina Coates was the SEC's top freshman in 2014 and is the Gamecocks' leading rebounder this season.

Yet both come off the bench for South Carolina.

And nobody inside that locker room cares. Getting the program to its first Final Four was the only goal that mattered from day one.

"It's definitely been different, but I actually welcomed coming off the bench," said Coates, whose Gamecocks face Notre Dame on Sunday night (ESPN/WatchESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET). "Even coming into my second year I knew there were more things I needed to work on. I agreed with Coach [Dawn] Staley's reasoning to having her more experienced players out there. And now we are here at the Final Four. It just makes me want to be that spark that much more."

The 6-foot-5 Wilson and 6-4 Coates have started just a combined six games all season, a strangely small number for two of the most decorated recruits in program history and two of the nation's best post players.

Wilson started South Carolina's season opener against Southern California but has yet to hear her name called in introductions since. Coates started five of the first six games and then moved to the bench. Staley saw something that only coaches can, suggesting the Gamecocks would ultimately be a better team with Elem Ibiam and Asia Dozier starting instead.

"We did try to change it up the first game of the season. I thought we probably should put the five best players on the floor," Staley recalled. "Sometimes the best five players don't have the same type of chemistry that you need to be successful, so we went back to the lineup that was more comfortable."

The starting lineup of Ibiam, Dozier, Aleighsa Welch, Tiffany Mitchell and Khadijah Sessions has been standard.

With that quintet in place, the Gamecocks continue to win, and sheer numbers suggest it worked right away. Wilson was 2-for-7 with four points in her debut as a starter. One game later as a reserve she scored 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Coates, in her first game as a full-time reserve, had 15 points and 13 rebounds against Charlotte. Wilson heads into the Final Four averaging 12.9 points and 6.5 rebounds. Coates goes for 11.1 points and 7.9 rebounds, the latter good for fourth in the SEC.

Results confirmed that it worked over the long haul too.

The Gamecocks are 34-2, SEC regular-season and tournament champions, and in the Final Four for the first time with two potential future All-Americans in warm-ups when the game starts. Some questioned the approach. It's difficult to do that now.

"Coach Staley is a woman of her word and doesn't like change. She saw us coming off the bench and the system worked that way, I wasn't going to say anything," Wilson said. "She's happy. I'm happy. It's all good this way."

Wilson and Coates, in fact, each play more minutes than Ibiam or Dozier and are the second- and third-leading scorers on the team. And with Ibiam and Welch both being seniors, Wilson and Coates will likely be starters next season.

But for now, Staley's starting five simply kept the lineup consistent with last season. Roles didn't have to change. All five starters are the same from 2014, and nothing new had to be built. Wilson and Coates get a different perspective and then become five-star additions when they hit the court, giving South Carolina a different kind of advantage.

"We thought it would be a great opportunity for A'ja and Alaina to see the game a little bit," said Staley, who joins Kim Mulkey as just the second woman to both play and be a head coach in the Final Four. "They come into the game and we're a totally different basketball team. It puts a lot of pressure on our opponents to prepare for two different teams."

That fact isn't lost on Notre Dame.

"They have great post players on the bench and in the starting lineup," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "You can't think about we'll have to get them in foul trouble or maybe we can do this or that, because the people they bring in are as good or better than the ones starting. It's going to be a little different for us to see the strength of their posts in this game."

Both Coates and Wilson get plenty of minutes per game -- Wilson at 19.7 minutes per game and Coates 20.9 -- but Staley was forced to alter her plan a bit at the Greensboro Regional. While Coates was exactly the spark South Carolina needed and was the regional MVP, Wilson played just 10 and 14 minutes, respectively, against North Carolina and Florida State. Wilson wasn't herself, but Staley sees that as a temporary situation.

"That was a great experience for her," Staley said of Wilson. "She's just got to find a way to not get herself in foul trouble. I think she's due for a really good game."

The comfort with which Coates and Wilson defer to the team's older players or to Staley's wishes might come easier since both are homegrown, playing scholastically just outside of Columbia and talking South Carolina basketball as AAU teammates since their early teens. Their reverence for the program began long before they enrolled in their first class.

"I take a lot of pride in wearing South Carolina on my chest. I think it is kind of fun being that local girl, playing for the local team," Wilson said. "This really is a dream come true to be at the Final Four. It's one of the reasons I came to South Carolina."

And it doesn't even matter if that means coming off the bench.