COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley thinks her players are eager to finish what they couldn't last spring due to COVID-19.
The Gamecocks had their first official practice Wednesday, carrying an attitude, Staley said, of making up for lost chances.
“They are focused,” Staley said.
And so is Staley, who has spent an offseason like few others. The Gamecocks were No. 1 in the country, had won the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament championships and were carrying a 26-game win streak into what should been an NCAA Tournament that was theirs to lose.
Instead, Staley and her team were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic that canceled all college athletic activity.
“It was really devastating,” Gamecocks center Aliyah Boston said. “We had such a great team last year and we were really excited and looking forward to the NCAA Tournament. It just happened so abruptly.”
But the 6-foot-5 Boston, who averaged 12.5 points and a team-best 9.4 rebounds last season, said the players quickly channeled that disappointment into improving for this season.
“We're just excited to get back to this year and to finish what we started,” Boston said.
Staley has seen that drive the past couple of months since the players returned to campus. It was back in the summer, Staley said, when two of her players tested positive for the virus and their teammates got on them for not following the protocol and having to go through quarantines.
“They take it on themselves to police the dorms and keep themselves safe,” Staley said.
The players have continued a tight existence, taking classes online, going to workouts and staying in dorms and away from what might take them out of competition as the season nears. The NCAA and SEC have agreed to a Nov. 25 start date, although schedules are not finished.
Staley said the Gamecocks won't play previously scheduled games this season with Maryland and Oregon, who were No. 2 nationally at the shutdown and considered South Carolina's biggest challenger for the NCAA crown.
The Gamecocks will continue their series with UConn this season, the coach said.
South Carolina won't have the senior leaders from last year in point guard Tyasha Harris and forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, both who played in the WNBA this past summer.
Staley said Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, the core of the country's top recruiting class in 2019-20, have all broadened their game
“They have an incredible and insatiable desire to compete,” Staley said. “That's what I love about them, they compete every single day. They don't make all the right decisions, but it's not going to be from them not being competitive.”
Staley had planned to spend much her summer at the Olympic Games in Tokyo as the USA women's national coach. The games were postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic.
But the postponement has allowed Staley and her staff to give her players a heavy dose of sticky, man-to-man style defense — something the 13-year coach typically grouses about early in the season as her players struggle to reach the defensive level she wants.
The time at home also let Staley finish off recruiting for next season. The Gamecocks currently have the No. 1 ranked class with the second, third and fourth-rated prospects per ESPN.
Staley knew she'd have an intense group when no one opted out of the season. “That was a conversation that took two seconds,” she said.
Staley knows there are uncertainties ahead with the virus still impacting the country and collegiate sports.
“But we'll pivot and the teams that are able to do that are hopefully the ones that are at a Final Four and hoisting a national championship,” she said.