PETE IACOBELLI, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Top-ranked South Carolina is ready for the next — and perhaps hardest — stretch of the season when it opens Southeastern Conference play this week.
The defending SEC champion Gamecocks (12-0) have been the No. 1 team for the past six weeks, a position that’s sure to be tested once league play begins Friday night against Auburn (9-4).
South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch said the players understand the difficulties ahead and know that winning their first conference crown last season will steady them for league play.
“We have a veteran team,” said Welch, a senior who made the all-SEC team last year. “We have a lot of people who know what it’s like to go into this schedule. There are no cakewalk games in the SEC.”
It hasn’t always been a cakewalk for the Gamecocks. They were pushed several times in hard-fought wins over Southern Cal (70-61), No. 21 Syracuse (67-63) and No. 10 Duke, where South Carolina rallied from four points down in the final minute to escape with a 51-50 victory on Dec. 7.
There were plenty of blowouts in pre-conference play, with the past four wins coming by an average of 39 points. The Gamecocks have been off since their 84-44 win over Liberty on Dec. 21, and coach Dawn Staley has worked the past few practices to restore the team’s focus.
“Obviously, they lost a little over the break because they decompressed, maybe a little too much,” Staley said. “We had to get them refocused and try and work on some things that are our shortcomings.”
They’re hard to spot.
Last year’s SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell has picked up where she left off, leading the Gamecocks with 14.8 points a game — good for seventh in the SEC. Heralded 6-foot-5 freshman A’ja Wilson has lived up to the reputation as the country’s top recruit last season, right behind Mitchell with 14.2 points a game. Alaina Coates, a 6-4 sophomore who was the SEC’s freshman of the year in 2013-14, leads the league with six games with double figure points and rebounds.
Welch, averaging 9.9 points and 5.2 rebounds, said the players know they can’t rely on what they’ve accomplished if they hope to repeat as SEC champs.
“We need a whole new level of focus,” she said.
Auburn heads to South Carolina off a 44-42 loss to Hampton in a tournament in Miami, Florida, this past Tuesday. Earlier this month, the Gamecocks won at Hampton 69-49 in a homecoming of sorts for Staley, who was a college star at Virginia.
The Gamecocks also bring a couple of streaks into the SEC opener — the 12-0 start is the best in Staley’s seven seasons in charge. They own a 24-game home win streak heading into the contest with the Tigers.
The Gamecocks have a difficult SEC opening stretch, following their home game with Auburn with four road games in their next five contests. The only home game in that sequence comes against No. 11 Kentucky on Jan. 11.
“Coming in defending SEC champs, No. 1 team in the country, we know we’re going to have a target on our back every single night,” Welch said. “You’ve got a lot of teams that are playing well right now in the SEC. We know what’s on the line every time we play.”
Staley has said she’s not building the Gamecocks to peak in December or January, but when it matters most in March and April. She’s been pleased with the progress so far.
“From all of that competition, I thought we got something out of all of those games, even when the score was lopsided,” she said. “Our young players grew throughout that process and will look a little different once the conference starts.”
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