South Carolina continues to put in work as top-ranked team

PETE IACOBELLI (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina point guard Tyasha Harris didn't do a much celebrating when the Gamecocks ascended to the top of the rankings this week. She understands how tenuous it can be trying to hold onto the top.

“It feels good, but we're going to stay level headed and humble about it and just continue what we've been doing," said Harris, one of only two Gamecocks on the roster from the 2017 NCAA Tournament champions.

The Gamecocks (16-1) became the fourth women's program to earn the top spot this season after 1-2-3 (UConn, Oregon State and Oregon) from the previous week all lost. South Carolina has beaten five ranked opponents this season, most notably No. 2 Baylor back in November.

But Harris believes its foolish to think that her team will just run through the rest of a difficult schedule that starts Thursday night at Missouri and continues Monday against No. 10 Mississippi State. Looming in February are those UConn Huskies, currently No. 4 who are 8-0 all-time against South Carolina including the last six with Dawn Staley as coach.

Staley said things have been largely the same with the team since Monday's news with crisp, solid workouts to prepare for the trip to Missouri - where the Gamecocks have lost two straight.

“I know probably inside they're happy, but it's normal," Staley said Wednesday.

Staley did allow her players use of social media (she bans it during the season) on Monday to share their feelings about their status as the country's top team.

“Then we shut it off and we worked," she said.

The shuffling at the top in the women's game mirrors things in men's college basketball where six programs have held the top spot in the first 11 weeks of rankings.

College basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli said the the carousel at the top of the polls is a reflection of the growth of women's basketball as result of the gradual increase and spread of talent from two or three dominant programs to teams all around the country.

“There's been much better depth with many teams capable of competing against anyone," she said. “It's really good for the game."

And should make for an entertaining and unpredictable NCAA Tournament, Antonelli said.

Antonelli, a Associated Press Top 25 voter, said the shuffling could continue given South Carolina's youth - two of the Gamecocks top three scorers and their top two rebounders are freshmen.

The Gamecocks, 5-1 against teams ranked in the Top 25 when they played, still have contests with current ranked Southeastern Conference teams, including Kentucky, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Tennessee.

Zia Cooke, a freshman who's third on South Carolina at 12.2 points a game, was excited about the jump to No. 1 and got congratulation texts from friends and family members. She, though, looked to leaders like Harris and senior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan to set the steady tone for what's ahead.

“I'm just going to keep working hard and continue to be humble," she said.

South Carolina's newcomers, led by top scorer and rebounder Aliyah Boston, have so far lived up to their billing as the country's No. 1 recruiting class.

Staley said the group came in ready to dig in, work and improve, attributes the coach added isn't always common among older players.

Their willingness to accept coaching and lock in defensively has lifted the Gamecocks this season.

“I will say this, some things we've had to deal with with some teams we don't have to deal with with this particular team," she said. “That gives us as a coaching staff great comfort in knowing that they can handle something."

Staley believes her team is moving in the right direction, no matter their ranking entering the postseason.

The coach said, “It just so happens that we've got a group of youngsters and a group of experienced players on one accord."

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More AP women's basketball: https://apnews.com/Womenscollegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

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