COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has had to multi-task this week, dealing with serious concerns on and off the court.
Staley and the Gamecocks have preparing to play No. 1 UConn while the coach dealt with comments by Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk’s comments that she fostered a hostile atmosphere during last Sunday’s game against the Tigers.
“I’m a master compartmentalist,” Staley said Wednesday. “Anytime you deal with distractions, you prioritize and the priority right now is UConn. That’s been my focus. Did I lose a little sleep last night? Yes. But there’s another game to be played.”
That’s on Thursday night when No. 7 South Carolina (18-3) takes on the top-ranked Huskies (20-0) in the latest top-10 matchup between the programs. But Staley has had to double back to the Missouri game and Sterk’s charge. He told the Columbia, Missouri radio station KTGR on Monday that Staley promoted a bad climate for the Gamecocks 64-54 victory that led to fans using racial slurs and spitting on Missouri players as they left the court.
“We had players spit on and called the N-word and things like that. It was not a good environment,” Sterk told the station. “And unfortunately I think Coach Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere, and it’s unfortunate that she felt she had to do that.”
Staley said Sterk’s assertions were “serious and false.” She said they would be addressed through proper channels.
During the Missouri game there was a brief scuffle when South Carolina’s Alexis Jennings and Missouri’s Kayla Michaels battled for a loose ball and both hit the floor hard still locked up. Players on both sides ran to the scrum. Officials took about 15 minutes to decide on penalties: Two Missouri reserves were ejected for leaving the bench while a starter on each side - Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham and South Carolina’s Doniyah Cliney - were assessed unsportsmanlike fouls.
South Carolina’s crowd booed Cunningham each time she touched the ball.
In her postgame comments, Missouri coach Robin Pingeton complimented South Carolina’s crowd and the big-game atmosphere.
South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner said he investigated what occurred when Missouri left the court and found no evidence to back up Sterk’s charges.
“I was very confused,” Tanner said. “I felt very strongly what we stand for in women’s basketball, our fan base, our head coach and the way we handle our business.”
Tanner has talked with Sterk and the officials at the Southeastern Conference over the past two days. Tanner believes a retraction from Sterk about Staley is required and hopes a resolution is forthcoming.
Sterk declined comment Wednesday through a Missouri athletic department spokesperson.
None of that, Staley said, matters much at the moment - not with UConn looming.
The teams have met the past three years, each time the Huskies have won by double-digit margins. Staley acknowledged UConn has been a measuring stick for her program to see how far it needed to go to reach championship level. That has not changed even with South Carolina winning its first NCAA title - defeating Mississippi State in the finals after the Bulldogs stunned the four-time defending champ UConn in the semis - last April.
“I think when you’re 0-fer against a team you want to win,” Staley said. “We’re going to try and get one on UConn, which is a real difficult feat.”
The Huskies have already defeated power programs like Notre Dame, Maryland, Stanford and Oklahoma by nine points or more this season.
“It’s different now that both teams have national championships,” said South Carolina forward A’ja Wilson. “But at the same time, it’s the game of basketball. We’re playing the same basketball that we’ve been playing for four years against them.”
Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said his team has not yet gone through the gauntlet that South Carolina can be at home.
“It was boisterous. The fans are passionate and the environment was unbelievable,” he said. “We’ll see whether this team is equipped to handle that.”