COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Dawn Staley likes No. 10 South Carolina's start to the year and, with a few tweaks, believes the Gamecocks can continue the run into Southeastern Conference season.
South Carolina has opened 9-0 for a second straight season and is ranked its highest since 2002. While Staley's teams have long been built on pressure defense, the Gamecocks have shown such an ability to score that they are one of the Southeastern Conference's top offenses.
"I know that any of us can produce at any time," leading scorer Tiffany Mitchell said. "So they should be aware of us at all times."
Mitchell has averaged 15 points a game, heading up four Gamecocks in double figure scoring. South Carolina leads the SEC and is fifth nationally with .503 shooting percentage.
Staley's glad to see the points. She just wishes it was accompanied by the in-your-face defense she played during most of her Hall-of-Fame career.
"We forced our program to be a defensive minded team because we didn't have players that could score the ball," Staley said. "Now we're constantly trying to teach our defensive philosophy. Slowly, but surely, we're getting there."
The Gamecocks figure to need the defense to kick in Wednesday night when they take on No. 14 North Carolina (8-2) at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. The teams have played there seven times since the 2000-01 season in connection with an area high school holiday tournament.
South Carolina ended the Tar Heels four-game series win streak two years ago with a 79-48 victory on the Grand Strand. This time, it's North Carolina looking to pull the surprise over a team in the top 10 for the first time since 2002.
Mitchell said the Gamecocks haven't thought much about the perfect start or the high ranking.
"It's not something coach Staley's going to let us get a big head about," said Mitchell, a sophomore.
Especially when there's so many bigger games ahead. South Carolina is among five SEC teams in the Top 25, three of those among the top 10. That means, Staley said, that each South Carolina opponent will have similarly skilled players drilled on stopping the Gamecocks offensive success.
Staley said the loss of last year's seniors in Ieasia Walker and Sancheon White has hurt on the defensive side because the pair were fast and well-versed in how to play Staley-style defense.
The high scoring — South Carollina has been held to fewer than 70 points just twice this season — has made up for the lagging defense.
"But at some point, we're going to need to make stops," Staley said. "That's probably going to be Wednesday night, so we'll see how far our defense has come."
Staley knew the deficiencies were coming, faced in fall camp with just two juniors who played in the regular rotation last year in Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam. Both have shown some defensive polish, the 6-foot Welch tied for seven in SEC rebounding at eight boards a game while Ibiam is second in SEC blocks with 22.
Eight of the 12 players on the roster this season at sophomores or freshmen.
The coach acknowledged the frustration at times.
"It's strange," she says with a smile. "It's different."
Staley hasn't seen any problems from the high ranking. While certain her players "are sticking their chests out in the dorms" some, they bring a solid focus to the court each practice.
That's shown in games. Staley believes it's the first time in her 14 years as head coach at Temple and South Carolina she's had such offensive versatility from anyone she puts on the floor.
"There isn't anybody on the floor that people can lay off," Staley said.
So it's been a fun start for the Gamecocks, who follow the North Carolina contest with three out-of-conference opponents (Winthrop, South Carolina State, Savannah State) before opening SEC play at Arkansas on Jan. 2.
Staley knows that's when the true tests begin for her young club.
"I'm also a little bit on edge because I'm not sure we're the team that can continue to hold teams to 40 points a game," the coach said.