- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Dawn Staley chuckles when asked about the road ahead for No. 2 South Carolina, a daunting stretch where the undefeated Gamecocks face four ranked opponents.

“It’s just the task at hand,” the coach said on Friday. “We don’t talk about the schedule.”

Maybe because peaking too far ahead might make the Gamecocks (18-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) dizzy.

The gauntlet starts Sunday at No. 10 Mississippi State. After a home game with unranked Ole Miss, South Carolina faces No. 13 Texas A&M;, No. 9 Kentucky before closing with what should be the game of the year in women’s hoops against No. 1 Connecticut on Feb. 8. The Huskies (17-0) are the only other undefeated team in Division I.

For Staley, it’s a process that means not looking around the corner.

Last season, she didn’t shy away from mentioning South Carolina’s upcoming contest at then No. 2 UConn when her club was 22-0 and holding the top spot. The result was an 87-62 drubbing that cemented the Huskies once again as the game’s premiere power and showed there was still a significant gap between them and South Carolina.

So Staley’s setting her players’ sites on the next game: squaring off against a hungry Mississippi State squad in the only regular season meeting between the schools.

“We need to tell them a little bit more than normal because of (SEC) tiebreakers with teams you only play once,” Staley said. “I think that’s on our players’ minds.”

Staley was not thrilled with her team’s focus and attention to detail entering the season. The coach believed too many players thought making the Final Four last year meant a golden ticket back into the national semifinals.

Staley has seen her team get tougher and succeed in various ways.

The Gamecocks outlasted gritty A&M; last Sunday, 59-58, surviving a back-and-forth contest that was decided on the Aggies’ late foul with the game tied in the final seconds. Sandwiched around that victory were a pair of double-digit SEC road wins.

“We’re trying to stay true to who we are,” said Tiffany Mitchell, the Gamecocks’ two-time defending SEC player of the year. “Just because these opponents have a number next to their names, that’s not going to change what we do.”

South Carolina has a mix of experience and newcomers that has meshed well this season, Staley says.

Along with Mitchell and fellow senior point guard Khadijah Sessions in the backcourt, the Gamecocks feature size in 6-foot-5 A’ja Wilson and 6-4 Alaina Coates that is hard to slow down.

Wilson had 26 points each in back-to-back games last week while Coates went for 17 points and 10 rebounds in defeating Auburn.

The Gamecocks, Staley said, also have a mantle of success as two-time defending SEC champions they carry into each game and fight hard not to lose.

“It’s our second year of being the hunted,” Staley said. “They understand that, there’s no newness about it. Yes, some pieces have changed, but the players from last year set the example of how you handle those situations.”

Mitchell and Sessions have taken on more leadership duties this season. It was Sessions who was sent to the line late against Texas A&M; and calmly sank the winning foul shot with 0.9 seconds later.

Sessions said those moments prove to all the players that South Carolina has the fight to hang in when pressed and pull out victories.

The Gamecocks have defeated seven ranked opponents so far and are ready to line up with anyone else, even powerhouse UConn, left on the schedule.

South Carolina “has done great so far,” Staley said.

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