Back when South Carolina women’s basketball unveiled its schedule in September, fans everyone circled the date on their calendars: Jan. 21. In prime time on ESPN2, the Gamecocks would renew their rivalry with Missouri.
USC and Mizzou’s bitter feud has lasted more than a year now and included ejections, technical fouls, hints of discontent with officiating, allegations of fan misconduct and dirty play, a defamation lawsuit and a fine from the SEC.
With all that off-court drama, ESPN naturally wanted the game on one of its biggest platforms, and there’s been plenty of discussion about it on and off social media.
But the figures at the center of it all are doing their best to diffuse the tension — Carolina coach Dawn Staley and Missouri coach Robin Pingeton have spoken several times since last year’s game at Colonial Life Arena. Staley on Sunday said they had discussed the idea of meeting the night before Monday’s game to prevent any further ugliness.
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“I spoke to Robin sometime in July about possibly getting our teams together,” Staley said. “That’s not something that I wanted the media to know about. So now I’ve got to answer questions about that, whether we get together or not. I don’t know. It’s the night before a game. If we can get together, great. If we can’t get together, I’m just going into it coaching up my team to win a basketball game. That’s it. I don’t want to add anything to it. I’ve got a short memory, and we’re going to move forward.”
No such meeting has been confirmed, but Staley left the door open to the possibility Sunday and said the issue in setting it up was simply communication.
“I mean, if it was planned a little bit sooner ... to do it now, we don’t even have a room,” Staley said. “So I don’t know. We’ll tackle that sometime [Sunday]. We played phone tag. ... I left a message, she left a message, and I think tag, I’m it right now.”
Beyond that, Staley declined to give the game any more significance and stressed several times that she had put last year’s controversy behind her.
“That’s all we’re focused on, is the basketball part of it. We gotta play the game. Fans, everybody else, they can worry about that other stuff. We’re just worried about getting another win in the SEC,” Staley said.
Last year is “actually in the back of my mind. I don’t even think about that anymore. I’m a person that has really mastered compartmentalizing, so I’m just trying to put our team in the best position to win a game.”
Staley also said she didn’t anticipate another scuffle like the one that broke out in the middle of the last contest.
“I don’t foresee anything happening like what happened last year. I just don’t foresee that. I don’t go into games thinking that’s going to happen,” Staley said. “I go into the game thinking about ways in which we can limit the amount of 3-point baskets they can get, how we can score, how we can play fast, how we can execute in their sagging man or their zone.”
With that in mind, Staley added that she hasn’t said anything to her players about the extra off-court scrutiny, only reminding them to stay calm if the game became physical, and junior guard Tyasha Harris echoed that Sunday.
“It’s just gonna be a nice basketball game. It’s going to be competitive and it’s gonna be 40 minutes,” Harris said.
Pingeton wants to make “something really positive” out of Monday night’s game, she told reporters in Columbia, Mo., on Thursday.
“We talked about some things at the SEC meetings. We have an opportunity to make something really positive from this,” Pingeton said. “No matter what we do, we have two teams that want to win the game. That’s why you play.”