COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The celebrations for South Carolina’s women’s basketball championship are over.
Coach Dawn Staley’s “netlace” is put away. The national champions are back to work.
The Gamecocks are practicing for a three-game tour of Tokyo later this month with several new faces just two months after cutting down the nets to win the NCAA Tournament.
The national title is “fresh in my mind always. Every day, you think about it,” two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year A’ja Wilson said Friday. “At the same time, we’re not done. We still have a lot of hard work to do. This is why we came here.”
South Carolina leaves June 27 and will play three games in Tokyo against Japan’s national team before returning July 5. The Gamecocks get 10 precious practices for Staley to see how her newest group blends together with several key pieces of last year’s national championship puzzle gone.
Three starters - Alaina Coates, Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray - are in the WNBA. Davis and Gray gave up their final season of eligibility to play in the pros. The Gamecocks will have at least six newcomers on the roster, including a few more transfers. Former Kentucky forward Alexis Jennings and Ex-Penn State guard Lindsey Spann. Jennings, at 6-foot-3, spent last season sitting out per NCAA transfer rules. Spann, 5-6, is a graduate transfer and immediately eligible.
“It’s tough losing them,” said Wilson, who’ll be a senior next season. “But we have a new, energized young team and I’m excited to play with them.”
Staley celebrated the title as much as anyone at South Carolina, sporting her “netlace” the championship game netting from the 67-55 victory over Mississippi State on April 2 - around her neck almost everywhere she went for weeks. Soon after, though, Staley was ready to get her team pointed toward 2017-18.
“It’s a different air we’re breathing,” Staley said. “More than half our team is composed of freshmen and sophomores. It’ll take some time for to get broken in. But things are moving pretty quickly.”
The NCAA allows teams 10 practices to get ready for international tours. Staley was ready to jump right in.
It was a lighter, far less pressured air at the end of Friday morning’s workout. Staley carried an extra-large coffee cup across court, then when she used a curse word to make a light-hearted point, her players together shouted “Media” as reporters and cameras watched nearby.
“We certainly want to enjoy” the national championship, Staley said. “We’ve enjoyed it and we’re going to continue to enjoy it. But I think what we do with all of our players, give each thing its own place, a place to celebrate, but there’s also a place to move on and concentrate on next year’s team.”
The trip will also give Staley, who was named U.S. national team coach in March, a very early preview of venues and progress for the Tokyo Games in 2020 - where Staley hopes to lead the Americans to a seventh consecutive gold medal.
“We’ll take it all in,” Staley said, grinning.
Staley’s most recent newcomers will also make the tour. Tormer Tennessee guard Te’a Cooper and assistant coach Jolette Law. Cooper both joined the Gamecocks earlier this month and, like Jennings last year, will sit out a season before continuing her career with the Gamecocks.
Law, a former head coach at Illinois, spent the past five seasons with the Lady Vols.
The bond Staley hopes gets forged overseas, particularly among the newcomers, is essential if the Gamecocks want a chance to celebrate a second title next year.
“It’s key,” Staley said. “We’ve got to get them up to speed on our culture and letting them know how we need to approach the season.”
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.