No. 1 South Carolina hits the road and hostile arenas for first time this season


COLUMBIA - South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is not minimizing the tests ahead for her high-scoring, top-ranked Gamecocks, even though their true road games this season won't be nearly as far as their opener in Paris.

South Carolina (5-0) takes on No. 24 North Carolina (5-2) on Thursday night as part of the ACC/SEC Challenge before facing the Tar Heels' nearby Triangle rival Duke on Sunday.

It's the first time her young, inexperienced group will truly face a crowd pulling against them this season.

"Yeah, it's a huge challenge," Staley said Wednesday. "We haven't been in a hostile environment like we're going to be in the next two (games) I imagine."

Staley said her male practice players - she calls them "The Highlighters" - did a good job this week pushing her team to get to another level.

"They made us think about what we're going to be up against" at North Carolina, she said. "So it was good for us to walk away thinking there's more to do."

South Carolina certainly hasn't looked stressed since the season began with a splashy debut in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower with a 100-71 victory over Notre Dame in France.

The run of success didn't slow down once the team returned home with four dominant wins, including take downs of then-ranked Maryland (114-76) and rival Clemson (109-40).

Hitting the road won't rattle the Gamecocks' chemistry and focus, said forward Chloe Kitts, who has started all five game and averaged 9.6 points and 5.4 rebounds.

"We're all just excited," she said. "We're ready."

Staley has her fingers crossed.

She has mentioned several times that the turnover from her team led by Aliyah Boston that reached the past three Final Fours to this younger, rawer squad has had a few bumps along the way -- especially in practice.

Staley said getting younger players like freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley to continually show strong fundamentals at workouts had been dicey at times. Where Fulwiley and the others excel is when the arena lights up for games.

Fulwiley has had several flashy, highlight reel moves and is second on the team at 15 points per game. But she also leads the team with 14 personal fouls and 11 turnovers.

It's going to take time to be as connected and in synch as last year's team, the core that played four years together and won the 2022 national title.

"It's mostly the freshmen who haven't experienced" the road, Staley said. "But we have enough older players who understand what we're trying to do."

The team will stay in the area between games at the North Carolina campuses about a half-hour's drive apart.

The Tar Heels gave South Carolina plenty of problems in their last matchup, a Sweet 16 game in 2022 that was perhaps the toughest challenge of the Gamecocks run to the NCAA Tournament title.

South Carolina had its double-digit lead cut to five points down the stretch before holding on to win 69-61 in that contest. Boston had 28 points, 22 rebounds and scored the Gamecocks' final 13 points.

Boston, the WNBA's rookie of the year, won't be part of this trip. The Gamecocks were 41-4 in road games during Boston's four seasons, three of the losses coming in 2021. Kitts is confident she and her teammates can live up to that high standard.

"We're going to play the same way we've played this season, even though this season just started," Kitts said. "I feel like we're still going to stay together and play our game, not let anything else get in the way, not let the refs, not let the environment, not let the other team get in our way."