COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley always knew her fourth-ranked Gamecocks would compete with the very best teams in the country and the Southeastern Conference — just maybe not this year.
Staley said Wednesday she's surprised at how quickly South Carolina gelled after losing three starters off last year's 25-win squad that reached the NCAA tournament.
"I didn't see us winning 23 of 25 games, that's for sure," Staley said Wednesday. "I did see us being put in a position where we take this program to higher heights."
South Carolina (23-2, 11-1 SEC) can take another step toward winning the SEC regular-season crown the Gamecocks travel to No. 15 Kentucky (19-6, 7-5) on Thursday night. Defeating the Wildcats would give South Carolina a school-record 24th regular-season win and keep them a game up on Texas A&M in the conference race.
It's been a steady climb since Staley took over the program after the 2007-08 season.
Not one for patient rebuilding, the basketball Hall of Famer and three-time Olympic gold medalist tried to impose her fast-paced offense and in-your-face defense with players not quite ready for the transition — and that led to several false starts for the Gamecocks rise.
Things began changing two seasons ago as South Carolina reached the NCAA tournament for the first time under Staley in a season that included an end to a 40-game, 32-year losing streak against SEC powerhouse Tennessee.
The Gamecocks built on that success the following year with a second straight trip to the NCAAs, led by seniors Ieasia Walker and Ashley Bruner, and Sancheon White, a trio who started every game of the 2012-13 season.
Without that group, Staley thought it might take a little time before her current players — eight of the 12 are sophomores or freshmen — could matchup in the SEC, particularly on defense.
The Gamecocks were on a different timetable.
South Carolina have attacked opponents on both ends of the court with the 6-foot-4 duo of Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates, and 6-0 Aleighsa Welch. Welch leads the SEC in field goal percentage while Ibiam is the league's top shot-blocker and Coates is third.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said Staley's built a program with staying power that won't succumb easily.
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