No. 21 South Carolina gets crack at No. 1 Stanford

PETE IACOBELLI AP Sports Writer Published:

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina's Dawn Staley has led the 21st-ranked Gamecocks to several milestones in her five seasons as coach. She hopes to add another one to that portfolio against No. 1 Stanford.

Staley was the tough-as-nails, star point guard for No. 2 Virginia, which pulled out a 75-74 victory over No. 1 Maryland in 1992. There were 14,500 people at Cole Field House, then an Atlantic Coast Conference record for women's basketball.

"It was electric," Staley recalled Tuesday. "I think they brought the fire marshals out. It was that kind of atmosphere."

Staley's banking on a similar environment at Colonial Life Arena on Wednesday night as the Gamecocks (10-0) try and end their 0-8 program record against to-ranked teams. The Cardinal (9-0) took over the top spot last month by defeating defending national champion Baylor.

Staley had only been on the job a few months the last time South Carolina played a No. 1 team, losing 77-48 to a Connecticut squad that would finish 39-0 on the way to a national championship.

The Gamecocks have taken several strides forward since then. They broke a 40-game losing streak to Southeastern Conference power Tennessee last winter and returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine seasons before they were knocked out by Stanford in the round of 16.

The Gamecocks have matched their best start in team history and feel ready to take on the game's best.

"It's a good measuring stick for where we are," Staley said. "I think we've had some success this year and we want to build on it."

Stanford's won all three meetings against South Carolina since Staley arrived.

The Cardinal finish the pre-Pac 12 Conference schedule with a difficult stretch of games, following the South Carolina trip with matchups against No. 10 Tennessee on Saturday and No. 2 Connecticut on Dec. 29.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer knows the high-level competition will prepare her players for bigger things down the road.

"We're enjoying our success but we're hungry and we want to get better," she said.

Staley and VanDerveer are friends. The Stanford coach led Team USA -- with Staley playing point guard -- to the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Staley said VanDerveer is a detail-oriented leader who taught her to look at game film in a more productive way. Staley learned from VanDerveer not to overlook even the tiniest detail in preparing players for success.

"Tara made me a student of the game," Staley said.

Still, it will be challenge for the student to surpass the teacher on Wednesday.

The Cardinal have eight players on their roster 6-foot-2 or taller. South Carolina has just two. Stanford may have lost star Nnemkadi Ogwumike as the top pick in the WNBA draft, but its led by her sister Chiney Ogwumike, who's averaged nearly 21 points and 12 rebounds this season.

Gamecocks 6-foot forward Aleighsa Welch said it will be critical for her to hold her ground underneath the basket against the taller Stanford players.

"I think it's going to be big to use our speed, attack their height and make them get up and down the floor a little bit," she said.

It's the first time South Carolina's opened 10-0 since the 1981-82 season. It may be the first time in Staley's five seasons the Gamecocks are using inside play to take charge. Welch's 11.9 points lead the team while Ashley Bruner, also 6-foot, is third in scoring at 11 points a game.

Welch thinks the Stanford's strength lies in their efficient play, something the Gamecocks saw up close last March as the Cardinal pulled away in the second half. Nnemkadi Ogwumike had 39 points and 10 rebound to lead Stanford.

Welch said last years' experience will help steel the players for what Stanford can do.

"When you play against somebody who's hitting shot after shot after shot, you can't pick up on film how efficient a team is," Welch said. "That they can knock down open shots and how clean and crisp their offense is."

In 2010, South Carolina athletics earned a reputation for defeating No. 1 programs with men's basketball (over Kentucky), baseball (over Arizona State) and football (over Alabama) beating top-ranked teams.

Staley wants to add women's basketball to that list.

"We're excited to be playing the number one team in the country on our home court," she said. "I'm excited for our players for the opportunity because you don't get that very often."