FILE - In this Friday, March 6, 2015 file photo, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley talks to players in the first half of a Southeastern Conference women's tournament NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas in North Little Rock, Ark. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley relied on experience over talent at times this season to reach the Gamecocksâ€™ first Final Four. She knows thatâ€™s got to change for her team to take the next step toward a national championship. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)
COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley relied on experience over talent at times this season to lead the Gamecocks to their first Final Four. She knows that's got to change for her team to take the next step.
Staley started two seniors and three juniors much of the season, while two of the team's top three scorers in Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson waited on the bench. The strategy worked well with South Carolina winning a school-record 34 games and capturing a second straight Southeastern Conference title.
To get beyond the national semifinals, where the Gamecocks fell 66-65 to Notre Dame earlier this month, Staley understands she needs more scoring punch from the start.
Staley told The Associated Press on Thursday that sometimes perimeter players, including starting guards Khadijah Sessions and Asia Dozier, did not score enough from the outside to keep opponents from sagging down on 6-foot-4 Coates and 6-5 Wilson, who combined for 24 points and 15 rebounds a game last season.
Notre Dame did that to frustrate the Gamecocks at the Final Four.
"It makes you wonder," Staley said. "We needed five players who could score on the floor with the box-and-one, triangle and two Notre Dame played 90 percent of the game. But you lose your experience when you go with players that have the ability to score.
The Gamecocks led the SEC with nearly 76 points a game this season. Yet, they fell behind before rallying in the Greensboro Regional to defeat North Carolina and Florida State. They also trailed the Irish by double-digits in the second half.
"I don't know if I would do things differently," Staley said. "I know we're going to have to find a way" to become a more consistent scoring team.
Expect Coates and Wilson in the starting lineup next season alongside two-time defending SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell. The other two spots may be up for grabs. Staley said each year, all her players must prove themselves and earn starting spots.
Sessions and Dozier, both seniors next season, will be pushed by hungry young players looking to rise up.
Bianca Cuevas was a lightning quick backup to Sessions at the point who was a McDonald's All-American coming into last season. While Cuevas could show instant offense, she also often played out of control with offensive fouls and turnovers. Staley said Cuevas must improve her decision making to take the next step forward.
Kaydra Duckett and Doniyah Cliney were also part of Staley's No. 2-ranked recruiting class last year. Duckett played in 20 games last year, but was not as strong as she needed to be for SEC play. Cliney, a standout from New Jersey, did not play at all last season, but practiced with the team in the spring semester after focusing on academic requirements last fall.
The wild card could be 6-4 Jatarie White, a third McDonald's All-American from last year's class who was slowed by injuries much of the year. Staley said White is technically the most accomplished forward in her lineup and could be the mainstay of next year's reserves.
Also, this week, Staley signed Virginia transfer in 6-2 Sarah Imovbioh, who led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rebounding at 10.8 boards a game last year. Imovbioh enters wanting to make an impact in her final year of college ball, Staley said, and won't sit back.
"It should be a good situation," Staley said.
Staley's still not over the final moments of the Notre Dame loss when Mitchell's last-second shot was off the mark. Staley longs for another chance to call that play. The defeat, she said, has fueled the returning players' offseason focus.
For Staley, there's no question what she's shooting for.. When she walked into the Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, took in the sights and the large crowd, she thought, "This is where I belong. This is home."
And she believes she's got a plan to get back there.
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