COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is glad to be back at practice and hopes her championship summer with USA Basketball will lead to similar success with the Gamecocks.
Staley was part of two U.S. gold-medal winning squads this offseason. She was coach of the Americans who won the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in August before serving as assistant for the national team that captured the FIBA World Cup last weekend in Turkey.
Her defending Southeastern Conference regular-season champions are seeking to finish on top, too.
Staley's international coaching experiences helped enhance her skill her ability to rotate talented players, all who expect lots of playing time. She figures to need that this winter since the Gamecocks added three McDonald's All-Americans including the country's top prospect in 6-foot-5 A'ja Wilson to a deep roster of returnees.
"I can relate to the type of talent that was on the floor and how you have to mesh it," she said. "Hopefully, we can bottle that up and use it for our team."
Because of her duties with the national team, Staley hadn't seen her players in about a month before returning to practice this week. She was excited to see a group of players working harder than ever to make sure they get on the court as much as possible. "They weren't disappointing," she said.
The hardest part for Staley is juggling her roster. The team returns SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell, league freshman of the year in Alaina Coates and all-SEC first team member Aleighsa Welch. Senior forward Elem Ibiam was second in the SEC with 83 blocks and was on the league's all-defensive team.
Last year's group earned the program's first SEC crown and first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks came up short of projection, falling in the round of 16 to North Carolina. Welch said that's energized to go much further this season.
"Our goal is nothing short of a national championship," Welch said. "We definitely have that goal in our mind and we know it's a reachable one."
Staley knows there won't be many open minutes to play her highly regarded newcomers in Wilson, 6-4 Jatarie White of Charlotte, North Carolina and point guard Biana Cuevas of New York City.
"It doesn't seem like everybody's getting enough reps because we've got so many bodies," Staley said.
Staley said she enjoyed her stints with USA Basketball. The Gamecocks' freshman Wilson was part of Staley's U18 group this summer. The coach was also grateful to mix with national team head coach Geno Auriemma and assistants Doug Bruno of DePaul and Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx.
"The basketball minds that were together were incredible," Staley said.
But she acknowledged she grew antsy toward the end, thinking about her players and prepping them for the sky-high expectations ahead of chasing a national title. "I think we've got all the key ingredients to do that," Staley said.
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