**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Media Relations**
DALLAS — The three teams that South Carolina may face in the Final Four this weekend are each very familiar with coach Dawn Staley and her coaching style.
Or, at least they thought they were.
The Gamecocks have beaten Mississippi State twice this season, including for the SEC Tournament championship. They lost to No. 1 Connecticut in Storrs, CT. And Stanford, Carolina's semi-final opponent Friday night, is coached by Tara VanDermeer, who coached Staley in the 1996 Olympics, coached against her when she was a player and has followed her career closely.
They all know Staley as a coach who stresses defense and rebounding and runs an offense often dictated by feeding the low post.
But these Gamecocks are different. Different and, quite possibly, better.
South Carolina has had to make major adjustments in the last few weeks after the loss of senior center Alaina Coates, an honorable-mention All-American who has missed the last eight games after ankle surgery.
But without Coates, Staley's team has ramped up the defensive pressure and become much more versatile on offense, using a four-guard attack to compliment All-American forward A'ja Wilson. The result is an eight-game winning streak that included another SEC Tournament championship and the program's second trip in three years to the Final Four.
No one has higher praise for Staley and South Carolina than VanDermeer, who has watched Staley's team evolve over the last two months.
"I think they do a lot of things really well," she said. "They have an elite player in A'ja Wilson. They get her the ball; she is a big presence down low. They run well. I think they're a very well-coached team. … They're an elite rebounding team and … you have people that are moving the ball. They're fantastic one-on-one players. All of them put the ball on the floor really well.
"I think you're going to be challenged defensively, you're going to be challenged offensively because they're athletic and long. … I think on every front, they are an excellent, excellent team."
That Staley has led her team back to the Final Four with four new starters — including two transfers and a freshman — and without her second-best player is a testament to her ability as a coach. Unlike other coaches, Staley is not a "system coach." She adapts to the talent on her team, and with transfers like former All-ACC players Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, she has more talent than ever before.
"We didn't have as much talent as we have (had) over the past maybe two or three years. So we had to do it with defense and rebounding," she said. "We built our program on just that because of the personnel that we had. Now that we have a more talented roster, we're more versatile. We can do a lot of different things."
Without half of her Twin Towers in Coates, the Gamecocks rely more on perimeter shooting and driving to the basket, while continuing to feed Wilson in the low post.
"A lot of teams that are here, like Stanford, Connecticut, they're a passing offensive team, a systems team that relies on passing. We're a team that relies on putting the ball on the floor, ball-screen action, and some passing," Staley said.
"I think we have the best of both worlds in that if you take one thing away, we have some other things that we can rely on because we have the talent to do so."
Obviously, Staley and her team would rather have Coates, who led the team with 10.7 rebounds per game while scoring 12.9 points. But Staley concedes that her injury might have been a "blessing in disguise" because it forced her team to adapt and play faster and more aggressively.
So far, it has worked.
"When Coates went down, obviously we were concerned," she said. "She's someone that has contributed to our program for the last four years. She's gotten us SEC Championships, both regular season and tournament championships. She's got us to the Final Four.
"You exhale for a second because you feel bad for her. Then once that moment passes, you got to get your healthy bodies ready to go. You got to get their minds ready. You got to get them ready spiritually, physically, emotionally.
"I mean, we never looked back. We never fretted it. We never felt like we didn't have enough in the room to get it done."
Coates injury also served as a rallying cry for her team, which has become a closer unit and developed a new kind of chemistry.
"The part that I'm proud of is the way that they've come together. They actually have gotten closer because of it," Staley said. "That's what you need your teams to do in an adverse moment.
"I mean, you can't foresee the chemistry part of it. A lot of what we're doing is because of the closeness of this team, because of Alaina's injury. That's how you want your team to respond."
The two biggest benefactors of the changes are Davis and Gray, the two transfers who have excelled in Coates' absence. Davis was the MVP of the Stockton Regional, scoring 28 and 23 points in the two games. Gray, a 6-0 guard, has become the team's leading rebounder (8.0) during the NCAA Tournament and is shooting 60 percent from the field.
Davis, the daughter of former NBA star Antonio Davis, has always been a prolific scorer — she scored 37 against Ohio State in her South Carolina debut. But she didn't start scoring consistently until Coates was injured. She's scored 20 points or more in four of her last five games.
"I think Kaela Davis has been a (benefactor) of the void that Alaina Coates has left," Staley said. "It put her in a position where she gets the ball in her hands probably 50 percent more than she did when Coates was in the lineup."
Davis describes her recent offensive success succinctly.
"I think it's just been attacking the paint, being aggressive, not just settling for jump shots, just kind of looking past that first defender, and … trying to get points in the paint."
Now Stanford and the other Final Four teams have multiple things to worry about when they play South Carolina — Wilson, Davis and the smaller, quicker, more aggressive lineup.
First and foremost, they have to find a way to contain Wilson, who leads the Gamecocks with 17.9 points per game and has topped 20 points 13 times, including in two of the four NCAA Tournament games.
VanDerveer calls Wilson "terrific" and "the proverbial load."
"She's very athletic, a skilled player, can hit the outside shot. She scores low, runs the floor well," she said. "You have to play really hard to play against her."
"I think that's going to be a big battle for us," Stanford's Erica McCall said.
But Stanford and the other Final Four teams now have a lot more to worry about than just Wilson when playing South Carolina.
"We've been put in the situation where we've had to make adjustments. When you've made adjustments, and they work out, it seems pretty good," Staley said.