The smoldering rivalry between two of the Southeastern Conference’s premier women’s basketball programs flared up anew Tuesday.
Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk stoked the flames with some surprisingly incendiary comments during an interview with KTGR Radio in Columbia.
Host Matt Michaels started his conversation with Sterk with a seemingly light question about whether the Missouri athletic director was relieved to get out of the arena alive after sitting courtside for the Tigers’ emotionally charged road game at South Carolina on Sunday. Sterk responded by not only blasting South Carolina fans for their harsh treatment of Missouri players but also blaming Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley for instigating the hostility.
“It wasn’t a great atmosphere,” Sterk said. “It was really kind of unhealthy, if you will. We had players spit on, and called the N-word, and things like that. It was not a good environment and unfortunately, I think coach Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere, and it’s unfortunate that she felt she had to do that.”
Sterk’s comments come two days after ninth-ranked South Carolina defeated 11th-ranked Missouri 64-54 in a game marred by second-quarter tussle that resulted in the ejection of two Tigers players. Video proof of Sterk’s accusations has yet to surface, but others affiliated with the Missouri women’s basketball program have corroborated his version of events.
Former Missouri player Sierra Michaelis was the first to say that her ex-teammates were spat on by South Carolina fans after Sunday’s game.
classy to see the SC fans spitting on Mizzou after the game lol
— Sierra Michaelis (@SierraMichaelis) January 29, 2018
Missouri women’s basketball coach Robin Pingeton on Tuesday also alluded to unspecified instances of poor fan behavior at Sunday’s game.
Asked whether S. Carolina fans spat on Mizzou WBB players, coach Robin Pingeton said she "was really disappointed with some things that transpired. There’s no place in our game for that. Fans have go tto be better. …All around. Our side. Their side. Fans have got to be better."
— Aaron Reiss (@aaronjreiss) January 30, 2018
And Missouri women’s basketball play-by-play man Brad Tregnago tweeted Tuesday night that he too heard the same vitriol at South Carolina that Sterk did.
I’ll just say Mr. Sterk and I️ were sitting right next to each other. And we both have functioning ears. https://t.co/VjWAR3xpps
— Brad Tregnago (@BradTregnago) January 31, 2018
South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner released a statement on Tuesday in response to the initial allegations against Gamecocks fans. While Tanner said creating a secure environment for opposing players and staff is “of the utmost importance” to him, he also made it clear that South Carolina has yet to uncover proof that Missouri players were spit on or called a racial slur.
“Upon hearing the accusations regarding our crowd’s behavior towards the Missouri team, the athletics department conducted a review of our operations from the game, including interviews with staff and security personnel,” Tanner said in the statement. “In this review, we received no confirmation of the alleged behavior directed at the visiting team by fans at the game.”
Tanner’s statement went out before South Carolina learned of Sterk’s interview. A South Carolina spokeswoman told Yahoo Sports that the school does not have additional comment at this time.
Sterk’s argument that Staley is at fault likely stems from her reaction to Missouri’s hard-fought upset victory on January 7 in the first meeting of the season between the Tigers and Gamecocks. Staley was ejected from that game for arguing with the referees and was still pretty steamed about Missouri’s physical play by the time she relived that game with reporters before Sunday’s rematch.
“I think there were some things out there that weren’t basketball, that weren’t basketball plays,” Staley told The State on Friday.
“And I get that you want to take key people out of the game. We want to do that. If we get the opportunity to get [Missouri star Sophie Cunningham] out of the game, yes, we’re going to try to do that, but within the confines of the rules of the game.”
It’s a massive leap for Sterk to suggest those comments from Staley inspired South Carolina fans to spit on Missouri players or use racial slurs, but there’s no doubt they contributed to the raucous atmosphere at Sunday’s game. The Gamecocks crowd booed Missouri vociferously from start to finish, especially after this scuffle just before halftime.
That Sterk would blame Staley for Sunday’s hostile atmosphere is notable because of her stature in women’s basketball. Staley is a six-time WNBA all-star who guided South Carolina to the national title last April and was named the successor to Geno Auriemma as head coach of the U.S. women’s national team.
Sterk may have been furious about the environment on Sunday, but he was happy with the poise that his own team showed.
“I thought they did a good job of handling themselves in a difficult situation and competing at a high level,” Sterk said. “It’s too bad, but you know, they have some talent and we’ve got a tougher team coming in Thursday. We have to move on.”
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