By Josh Hyber | Photo by Jenny Dilworth
CHARLOTTE — When South Carolina senior Doniyah Cliney was asked about how intense head coach Dawn Staley’s practices have been as the Gamecocks prepare for the NCAA Tournament, her short pause, wide smile and quick laugh virtually said all that was needed to be said.
“[They have been] intense. Intense. Mentally, physically and emotionally,” she said. “Any feeling that you could possibly get in your body, she tested it.
“… Some of us fell down, but we picked each other up.”
“Coach Staley put us through a mental, physical battle over the past couple of weeks,” SC guard Ty Harris said. “But I think it’s going to pay off in the long run.
“… It’s going to be different.”
Staley, her team and South Carolina fans will find out just how different on Friday at 1:45 p.m. (ESPN2) when the No. 4 seed Gamecocks (21-9) take on No. 13 seed Belmont (26-6) in a First Round matchup at Halton Arena.
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Cliney said as soon as the Gamecocks took the practice floor after its loss to Arkansas in the SEC Tournament, Staley was direct with her message.
“I want this. I want that,” Cliney said.
Guard Nelly Perry said because of the practices the Gamecocks are a different and “much better” team.
“We just competed nonstop, and when we compete I feel like we’re really at our best,” forward Alexis Jennings said.
Staley chuckled before explaining her reasoning for the intense practices, ones she admitted were the most intense of her team’s season: Her team has had “no ball pressure” lately and allowed Arkansas to “drive it down our throats.”
“They were challenged in every drill,” the coach said. “… No one likes losing, and if you’re going to take in the same effort and preparation that you did prior to losing, you’re setting yourself up for failure. … I wanted to make sure that our players understood that it’s unacceptable to lose as early as we [did].
“We just had to get back to the drawing board and go back to making sure we understand details about how we have to play on both sides of the ball.”
Harris said South Carolina needed to get back to competing in every drill. It didn’t change the drills it does, it just did them faster and with more physically.
“If we don’t dive after a ball or if we don’t run after it, even if it’s out of bounds, we get in trouble,” the point guard said. “We have to run or something like that.”
Added Te’a Cooper, “It’s been very, very competitive. Physical. Mentally it’s been hard. We’ve really stressed on ball pressure and competing. … The energy has definitely gone up another level.
“We have a whole different mentality after what happened in the SEC Tournament. Competitiveness, pace, mentality, everything has changed.”
Said Staley, “I’m looking forward to seeing how we come out and play tomorrow. I know we’ll play with a lot of intensity. I know we’ll get up and down the floor.
“Whether we’re able to execute during long stretches during basketball games will be an indicator of whether or not we’re able to make a run in the tournament.”
Added Cliney, “We know what we have to do. We’re locked in.
“Y’all think we were fast before, just wait until tomorrow.”