**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
The South Carolina women's basketball team faces two big specters entering the NCAA tournament, but neither seem to faze the No. 4 Gamecocks.
The top seed in the West Coast Regional, South Carolina (27-4) enters it first-round game Friday without leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Alaina Coates, who will miss the tournament after having ankle surgery.
It also must erase the specter of last season, when the No. 2 Gamecocks were upset in the Sweet 16 by Syracuse.
The Gamecocks, who earned their fourth straight No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, are dealing with the loss of Coates, a senior and the team's starting center. And they are not worried about what happened last year.
"It's somewhat of a different team, especially not having Alaina Coates available to play," head coach Dawn Staley said Friday. "Very little of the make-up of our team experienced that on the court, so I don't know if it hits them as hard as the seniors that graduated and A'ja (junior forward A'ja Wilson) and Alaina.
"This is a new team and a new outlook. We want to experience better memories of things we're in control of. We are in control of our own destiny, but sometimes you do have to look back on the stumbling blocks that took place to ward of some of the doubt that creeps in."
South Carolina, which will host the first round in Columbia for the third straight season, has already experienced life without Coates, who played only four minutes in three games in the SEC tournament. Without her, the Gamecocks struggled in the championship game against Mississippi State and trailed entering the fourth quarter. But led by Wilson, the SEC Player of the Year, they stormed back to take control of the game and win their third straight SEC Tournament.
"I think the last few games in the SEC tournament really kinda showed me what I need to do and how we need to play in order to move on and continue," said Wilson, an All-American who leads the Gamecocks with 17.6 points per game.
While Coates is a big loss, especially on the boards, Wilson said Friday that the team showed in the SEC tournament that it has what it takes to rally together and overcome the loss.
"It's tough, but we just have to pick her up," she said. "I feel like we have people who can fill in those roles as well. I feel like we are all good leaders on the team and we help each other a lot when things may not be going our way, when things may be tough."
The championship game against Mississippi State was a perfect example. The Gamecocks trailed by five points entering the fourth quarter, but rallied for a 59-49 win. Wilson led the way with seven points, seven rebounds and two blocks in the final quarter.
"When they went up, I think we really came together as a team and we all played our roles the right way and we got the win," Wilson said. "It is tough filling that gap but we find a way."
With Coates, a 6-4 senior, out more responsibility falls to Wilson, a 6-5 forward, and 6-2 freshman Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, especially for rebounding and low-post defense. But the absence of Coates also will force the Gamecocks to change the way they play.
They will rely on more perimeter shooting and a smaller lineup.
"We can play a litter freer as far as spacing people out and creating a little more driving lanes, not having the two bigs in there clogging up the paint," Staley said. "… We can press a little bit more, we can switch a little bit more because we are smaller. It just makes us a little bit more versatile on both sides of the ball."
South Carolina, which plays Friday at 5 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena, will face 19-14 UNC Asheville, which made the tournament by winning the Big South tournament. The winner will face the winner between Michigan State and Arizona State.
If South Carolina wins out at home to advance to the Sweet 16 for the eighth time, it will then face the specter of last season, when it also entered the tournament as a top seed but fell to Syracuse a year after making it to the Final Four.
Wilson says she is not thinking about last year's loss but admits that it serves as extra motivation.
"Every loss to me is motivation, especially that one," she said. "We just have to attack it when we get there, but it will be motivation, most definitely."
Staley says she has not mentioned the upset to her team nor used it as motivation. She believes most of her players are not dwelling on it. Starters Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray missed last year's tournament with injuries and only a handful of the current players experienced the disappointment.
"They're just (champing) at the bit to play," Staley said of her two starting guards. "We're tapping into that energy of wanting to compete.
"We're an excited team. We feel ready to make a long run. To make a long run, you have to stay in the moment and make sure you're not overlooking anyone. This team has never done that, they've always been an in-the-moment type of team. We're looking forward to the challenge of the tournament."
Wilson, a leading candidate for National Player of the Year, made the Final Four as a freshman. She believes this team has what it takes to return.
"I think we have it. I think the thing that it takes the most, that Coach always says, is discipline," she said. "I think that the team has to be disciplined in all aspects of the game. Mentally, physically, emotionally, you just have to be disciplined and stick to your game plan and execute it.
"… With discipline and sacrifice … just playing with heart. I think we have all these things and it will take us very far."