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Why South Carolina deserves No. 1 ranking despite loss to unranked Missouri

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Undefeated seasons shouldn't be the goal. They're great, but are merely a sidenote to a championship. And South Carolina is seeking the natty.

Opening conference play on the road in Missouri was tough, and the Gamecocks fell on the wrong side of it. Head coach Dawn Staley knows what happens next.

"Our team can learn," she said after the 70-69 loss in overtime on Thursday. "They listen to you the most in losses."

The SEC is tough with six teams currently in the Associated Press Top 25 and nearly as many primed to take down a conference foe on any given night. Not to mention the increased parity in the sport over the past few years. Arizona (10-0), North Carolina (13-0) and Colorado (11-0) are the last remaining undefeated teams, the fewest at this point in the last 13 years, per ESPN.

All of which is why No. 1 South Carolina deserved to keep its ranking even after a loss to an unranked squad. This wasn't just any unranked squad, and if not the Gamecocks, who else?

Louisville (five) and Arizona (three) took first-place votes away from South Carolina in the AP rankings, but their schedules aren't even close to that of South Carolina. Take a look at notable wins and losses:

South Carolina (13-1): No. 5 N.C. State (+9), No. 9 Oregon (+17), No. 2 UConn with Paige Bueckers (+16), Kansas State (+21), No. 8 Maryland (+7), No. 15 Duke (+9), No. 2 Stanford (+4).

Louisville (12-1): No. 22 Arizona (-2 OT), No. 12 Michigan (+22), No. 14 Kentucky (+6), No. 7 UConn without Bueckers (+5), No. 16 Georgia Tech (+2).

Arizona (10-0): No. 6 Louisville (+2).

Stanford (9-3) remains at No. 2, but did not take any first-place votes as it's gone 3-3 against AP ranked teams. Unfortunately for the Cardinal, the Pac-12 isn't as stacked as recent years.

South Carolina can further prove it's the best of the bunch — and it has taken lessons from that loss — with another crucial stretch of games against No. 13 LSU on Thursday, No. 21 Kentucky on Sunday and No. 25 Texas A&M on Jan. 13.

Players of the South Carolina Gamecocks huddle prior to a game against Duke.
The South Carolina Gamecocks are still the No. 1 team in the country despite a loss last week to an unranked team. (Lance King/Getty Images)

UConn outlook changes with COVID-19 postponements

Connecticut has missed three games after the holiday break due to health and safety protocols within its own program. That does change the outlook for this team going forward.

The Huskies (6-3) are dealing with key injuries and the extra time might work two-fold. First, it gives players such as Azzi Fudd extra time to get healthy. Second, depending on scheduling, it pushes conference games back later in the season if there's room to fit them in.

Because of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and surging number of cases, the Big East is among the conferences to do away with the forfeiture policy and instead attempt to make the games up. But they have not adopted a shorter isolation period as other conferences have.

The long layoff continues as UConn announced on Tuesday it had to postpone cancel Friday's game against Villanova. Head coach Geno Auriemma told reporters on Monday he wasn't optimistic they would play that game due to roster numbers.

That is now four cancelations out of the break and only nine games played for the Huskies, whose season has gone nowhere close to what fans had hoped.

Top performances: Caitlin Clark, Ayoka Lee

Kansas State center Ayoka Lee attempts to score as Oregon forward Taylor Hosendove defends.
Kansas State center Ayoka Lee attempts to score as Oregon forward Taylor Hosendove defends during their game on Dec. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

Iowa sophomore Caitlin Clark put up a monster outing in a 93-56 win over Evansville while the Hawkeyes were without Monika Czinano (17.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and McKenna Warnock (12.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) due to COVID protocols.

Clark set a career-best with 44 points on 18-for-26 shooting, a high shooting clip for a guard, and it set the record for points scored in a women's game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. She was 2-for-7 from 3-point range and made 6 of 7 free throws. Clark added eight assists, five rebounds and two steals. And she did it all in 30 minutes.

It also pushed her over the 1,000 career points mark, making her the fastest Big Ten player and eighth-fasted NCAA player to hit the mark. It took her 40 games.

It was good to see Clark and Iowa get out and play a game after the pauses created by health and safety protocols within their program and others. Evansville was a late add to the schedule.

Kansas State center Ayoka Lee had her fourth 30-point, 10-rebound game at the right time. Lee led Kansas State to its first win over Baylor since Jan. 27, 2004, with 32 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, two steals and two assists. She scored 28 in the second half, including 19 in the third quarter while Baylor as a team had only 17.

Lee is on player of the week watch lists ranking top-five in points per game (24.4, third), blocks per game (3.9, third) and double-doubles (8, tied fifth).

Upsets of the week

As always, for these purposes an upset is a lower or non-ranked team defeating a higher-ranked team. Rankings are as of the game, with Associated Press poll movement in parentheses.

  • No. 1 South Carolina 69, Missouri 70 (OT) (South Carolina steady; Missouri receiving 53 votes)

  • No. 13 Georgia 62, No. 19 LSU 68 (Georgia down 2; LSU up 6)

  • No. 15 Duke 55, Virginia Tech 77 (Duke down 2; VT receiving 6 votes)

  • No. 10 Baylor 59, Kansas State 68 (Baylor down 4; Kansas State receiving 27 votes)

  • No. 6 Maryland 63, No. 8 Indiana 70 (Maryland down 4; Indiana up 2)

One of the many in the almost-pulled-an-upset category is No. 16 Georgia Tech, which stayed put this week. The Yellowjackets kept No. 3 Louisville to three points in the first quarter and seven in the third, but gave up 23 in the fourth. The dagger was this game-winner by Emily Engstler, who had to have been downright shocked she was this wide open. The Cardinals won, 50-48, in a battle of defensive standouts.

Lorela Cubaj left early to defend Hailey Van Lith, who seconds earlier tied it on a similar cut, but credit to Engstler for selling it, reading it and completing the play. It was Louisville's only lead of the game.

What to watch this week

Wednesday

No. 12 Iowa State (12-1, 1-0 Big 12) at No. 23 Oklahoma (12-1, 1-0 Big 12), 7 p.m. ET

Thursday

No. 25 Texas A&M (10-3, 0-1 SEC) at No. 7 Tennessee (13-1, 2-0 SEC), 6:30 p.m. ET on SECN

No. 15 Georgia (12-2, 1-1 SEC) at No. 21 Kentucky (7-3, 0-0 SEC), 7 p.m. ET on SECN+

No. 16 Georgia Tech (10-3, 1-1 ACC) at No. 17 Duke (10-2, 1-1 ACC), 7 p.m. ET on ACCNX

No. 1 South Carolina (13-1, 1-1 SEC) at No. 13 LSU (14-1, 2-0 SEC), 8 p.m. ET on SECN+

Sunday

No. 19 North Carolina (13-0, 3-0 ACC) at No. 5 N.C. State (12-2, 3-0 ACC), 8 p.m. ET on ACCN

No. 21 Kentucky (7-3, 0-0 SEC) at No. 1 South Carolina (13-1, 1-1 SEC), 1 p.m. ET on ESPN

No. 5 N.C. State (12-2, 3-0 ACC) at No. 20 Notre Dame (11-3, 2-1 ACC), 2 p.m. ET on ACCN

No. 9 Texas (10-1, 1-0 Big 12) at No. 14 Baylor (10-3, 0-1 Big 12), 3 p.m. ET on ESPN