- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

Dawn Staley was proud of what South Carolina accomplished this season and knows there’s much more ahead for her young team.

The Gamecocks won their first Southeastern Conference championship, their 29 victories were the most in more than three decades and they earned the program’s first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And while South Carolina lost in the Stanford Regional semifinals to North Carolina, Staley believes that will empower her players to work even harder this offseason to take that next step.

“I thought it was a great experience to go through that, more mental than anything,” Staley said this week at South Carolina’s football pro timing day in Columbia. “As far as the entire team, they’ve never played basketball that late in the season. I think for them to do that, you’ve got to have some experience and with us being so young, it’ll pay off in the future.”

Much of the club that went 29-5 this season returns, led by SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell, all-SEC player Aleighsa Welch and the league’s freshman and sixth-woman of the year Alaina Coates.

Staley’s also got what might be her strongest recruiting class coming in featuring McDonald’s All-Americans in forward Jatarie White and guard Bianca Cuevas. The Gamecocks are also still in the mix for the country’s No. 1 prospect in A’ja Wilson, a 6-foot-5 post player from Columbia who’s narrowed her college choices to Connecticut, North Carolina, Tennessee and the Gamecocks.

Wilson is expected to announce her decision April 16, the first day players can sign national letters of intent in the spring period.

Staley expects her returnees to work harder than ever this offseason to improve their games.

“If they don’t, we’ve got some players coming in who would be able to push them,” she said.

Expect Welch to take the reins of the club as a senior. The 6-foot forward was the team’s second leading scorer at 13.7 points a game and No. 2 in team rebounding at 7.6 boards a game. She finished with 47 blocks, third behind South Carolina’s 6-4 twin post players of Coates and Elem Ibiam.

Welch wasn’t sure what to expect entering the season without three seniors who started every game in 2012-13. But she quickly found a core group ready to work hard and push themselves to bigger things.

Mitchell increased her scoring average by more than 6 points to 15.5 points a game this season. She also led the Gamecocks in assists (118), three-point shooting (54.1 percent) and steals (62).

The team had winning streaks of eight, nine and 10 games, the last powering the Gamecocks to an SEC regular-season title. South Carolina celebrated the win at home - the Gamecocks were 16-0 in their building - and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive was on hand to present the trophy.

That’s when the Gamecocks, though appeared to lose the edge they carried much of the season. They lost the SEC regular-season finale at Tennessee, then fell in the league tournament semifinals to Kentucky.

While those defeats didn’t cost them a No. 1 seed, South Carolina was sent nearly 2,900 miles away from campus to Seattle for NCAA play.

Things ended with a second loss to the Tar Heels - North Carolina won a holiday tournament matchup in December at Myrtle Beach. Still, Welch thought this year’s run set the team up to add to those milestones next year.

“The sky’s the limit,” she said.

Staley said the team needs more consistency from sophomore point guard Khadjah Sessions. Expect Sessions to get pushed by Cuevas, a 5-6 fireball who features an on-court toughness Staley possessed during her Hall-of-Fame career.

Should South Carolina match this year’s results, it would have a benefit of opening the NCAA tournament at home. The Gamecocks were among Palmetto State schools unable to host NCAA tournament games because of a continuing NCAA ban against the state for flying the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds. The NCAA will switch to awarding the first-two rounds of regional games on merit, like baseball and FCS football, instead of using predetermined sites like this year.

“We should have a chance to play at our place” in the NCAA tournament, Staley said. “That can only help.”



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