COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley hasn’t looked ahead all season and won’t start now, no matter how close her top-ranked Gamecocks are to their matchup with No. 2 Connecticut.
A’ja Wilson scored 17 points, Alaina Coates had 14 points and 10 rebounds and No. 1 South Carolina routed Alabama for the second time this month in a 85-54 victory Thursday night.
The Gamecocks (20-0, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) now prepare for a three-game road stretch, the last of which is Feb. 9 with its highly anticipated showdown with the defending national champion Huskies.
“This team is staying in the moment. When you bring something to their attention, they do a good job to focus on what that is,” she said. “The anticipation of playing UConn is there, but we play in the best conference in the country and we’re going to be challenged every single night.”
Perhaps not every single night. This 31-point win over Alabama (12-11, 1-7) followed a 102-59 blowout victory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Jan. 8.
“Having these guys two of the first eight (SEC games) hasn’t been fun,” Alabama coach Kristy Curry said.
South Carolina’s road gets tougher, facing Ole Miss on Sunday and Georgia on Feb. 5. The Gamecocks have already doubled the best previous start in school history with their 20th straight win.
“It’s just another milestone in the process of getting to the national championship,” said Coates, last year’s SEC freshman of the year.
Wilson, the 6-foot-5 freshman, scored seven points in a 19-3 first-half run as South Carolina moved in front for good.
Coates put up her SEC-leading ninth double-double this season and added five blocks. Leading scorer Tiffany Mitchell was the Gamecocks’ third double-figure scorer with 11 points.
Karyla Middlebrook had 11 points to lead Alabama. Leading scorer Ashley Williams fouled out with eight points.
South Carolina was coming off a dominating, 79-61 victory over No. 12 Texas A&M on Monday night. That win, combined with a 102-59 blowout at Alabama three weeks ago, seemed the perfect recipe for a letdown. And while the first half was far from perfection, the Gamecocks managed to build a sizeable lead.
Alabama led 8-6 on Middlebrook’s basket four minutes in before South Carolina took off on a 19-3 run to gain control.
Wilson had seven points in the stretch, which put the Gamecocks ahead 25-11 with 10:01 to play in the period.
Still, South Carolina was not crisp. Mitchell made just one of four shots and spent much of the half on the bench with two fouls. Wilson, the 6-foot-5 freshman, also picked up two fouls in her five minutes of action in the half.
Alabama did show a measure of improvement as Hannah Cook’s 3-pointer in the final minute cut the lead to 38-21 at the break. The Crimson Tide trailed by 18, 48-30, in their last loss to South Carolina.
Staley defended her starters, saying the five most experienced players will always get the opponents best shot so when Wilson and the 6-4 Coates get in, it can be difficult to adjust to size increase.
“Everybody’s excited about outplaying and dethroning us,” she said.
The Gamecocks had 19 turnovers, tying the second-most in a game this season. But like at LSU when they committed 23 miscues, it did not cost them victory.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide played without backup guard and Baylor transfer Breanna Hayden, who’s serving the second game of a two-game suspension for a fight in the Auburn win.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have averaged 11,844 fans their first nine games, an increase of more than 5,000 from their average attendance a year ago.
Alabama returns home to face Arkansas on Sunday.
South Carolina travels to play Mississippi on Sunday.
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