COLUMBIA, S.C. — Few know better than South Carolina coach Dawn Staley what's it like to perform under the brightest spotlights. And right now, she's comfortable with her Gamecocks' stealthy approach to success.
Not that the Gamecocks will get away with it much longer if they keep playing like this.
"We are constantly trying to build our resume," Staley said Wednesday.
So far, it's a strong one. The Gamecocks (12-2) haven't started with a record this good since going 14-1 nine years ago. That was also the last season South Carolina opened Southeastern Conference play with a win after defeating Alabama 68-42.
The Gamecocks are second nationally to powerhouse Connecticut in points allowed and showed off their tenaciousness in a 79-48 victory over then 18th-ranked North Carolina last month.
"They're street fighters," Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell summed up after her team scored its fewest points since the Huskies beat them 88-47 two seasons ago.
You could say the same thing about Staley, the former college, Olympic and pro star who did just about whatever it took to win. She had hoped South Carolina would be further along entering her fourth year — the Gamecocks haven't made the NCAA tournament since 2003 — but has plowed forward despite defections of a couple of potential program changers in Kelsey Bone and Kayla Brewer the previous two years.
Bone, the SEC newcomer of the year in 2010, left for Texas A&M and the national champion Aggies. Brewer, another celebrated prospect, lasted only eight games at South Carolina before choosing to leave for Texas.
Through it all, Staley has concentrated on the players she has, not those she's lost.
"Any time you win, it just brings a different type of atmosphere," Staley said. "I think our kids recognize what they do well."
Right now, that's in-your-face defense whenever an opponent gets the ball. The Gamecocks have given up 44.6 points a game this season, 15 fewer on average than a year ago.
"We know how we can play," said junior forward Ashley Bruner. "We plan on going out there real quick and tying them up with tough defense."
Staley was known for her speed and defensive skill at the point in leading Virginia to three Final Fours and the United States to three Olympic gold medals during her international career. She remembers what it was like when she took the South Carolina job after the 2007-08 season and her players had yet to understand the effort and commitment needed to succeed.
As the Gamecocks dug in, their coach lightened up and is more likely to laugh at practice than blow up.
The effect is obvious, Bruner said.
Bruner said she's had doubts before certain games — South Carolina fell to No. 23 Penn State in November — then watched as she and her teammates clicked into gear and usually left with a win. "We've been showing that we can get it done when we need to, so that gives us confidence," she said.
The Gamecocks have plenty of challenges ahead in the SEC. They take on No. 24 Vanderbilt on Thursday night, the league leader in 3-point shooting. South Carolina, though, has given up just 24 3s this season, by far the fewest allowed by SEC teams.
Having a ranking to go along with the improved play (No. 6 Tennessee, No. 11 Kentucky and No. 16 Georgia are the other SEC teams in the Top 25) is something Staley's not sure her team is ready for yet.
A season ago, the Gamecocks were on the verge of an NCAA berth with a 7-5 conference record into the middle of February. But South Carolina dropped three of its final four regular-season games and bowed out in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, settling for a trip to the NIT.
Staley's wants her players to focus on improving each game, not on how much publicity they might get.
"We're in the conversation and that's always a good thing," Staley said. "I kind of like going under the radar and have a little splash at the end."