South Carolina enters SEC play off to its best start in eight years


COLUMBIA - South Carolina coach Lamont Paris and the surprising Gamecocks have shown there's more to hoops at the school than the top-ranked, undefeated women's team.

South Carolina is off to its best start in eight seasons at 12-1 after getting picked dead last in the Southeastern Conference preseason rankings, and already has more wins then a year ago when it went 11-21 in Paris' debut season.

"They tell me that we haven't had one loss going into (SEC) regular season very often," Paris said Thursday. "Guys are playing with confidence and they expect if we do the things that we need to do that we should win."

The Gamecocks will try to bring that to SEC play, starting Saturday at home against Mississippi State (11-2).

"There will be plenty of people that write articles or haven't been to practice who are going to tell you they're going to need a miracle to win this game or that game," Paris said. "Our guys have done enough, they believe enough in each other and their abilities and what we do that if we play well, we should win.

"And that's a good feeling to know and have your guys believe that."

Only No. 22 Mississippi, at 13-0, has more wins or fewer losses in the SEC than the Gamecocks. They've even popped up on some way-too-early NCAA Tournament lists as they try for their first trip to the Big Dance since a Final Four run in 2017.

South Carolina's lone loss came at No. 16 Clemson, 72-67, in the annual rivalry game.

Leading scorer Meechie Johnson said there could've been more defections and less buy-in this season after their past struggles. Instead, the group has clung to each other to produce more than many expected.

"We focus on every single game," said Johnson, averaging 17.7 points a game. "We haven't gotten too caught up in what this team has done and what the record is. We've got to stay together."

The SEC is another test this team will have to pass. Since reaching the national semifinals seven seasons ago, South Carolina is 45-61 overall in league play, including a 4-14 mark with Paris last year.

The Gamecocks have had their share of solid victories this season. They've defeated Atlantic Coast Conference teams in Virginia Tech and Notre Dame and won the Arizona Tipoff tournament in November with victories over DePaul and Grand Canyon, a group that made the NCAAs a year ago.

The success has built belief that it will continue.

"There's a lot of confidence," Johnson said. "A lot of it has to do with the winning record, being 12-1, you come into conference play being a top-three team in the (SEC). So you're just really excited."

Vanderbilt transfer Myles Stute is a 6-foot-6 junior who started 59 games in three seasons with the Commodores. He's spoken to teammates about the difficult conference stretch ahead.

"Night to night, it's a gauntlet," said Stute, averaging 10.6 points "We definitely put ourselves in a good position so far and now it's about taking it one game at a time."

Paris, a longtime assistant at Wisconsin, had led Chattanooga to the NCAA Tournament in 2022 before taking over the Gamecocks after Frank Martin was let go.

Paris is focused on the steadiness the Gamecocks have shown on defense - they're second in SEC scoring defense.

Last month, South Carolina made a program-record 18 3-pointers in beating George Washington. Paris knows that helps win games, but is not what his team can count on each contest.

"That's not reproduceable on an every-night basis," he said. "But blocking out consistently, defending, playing your rules defensively, commitment to that, those are reproduceable things that have generated results for these guys."

Johnson, the SEC's third-leading scorer, has seen how the 18,000-seat arena fills up, mostly when Dawn Staley's team is on the court. He feels the fan base embracing the men more these days.

"I get chills thinking about it," he said.