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The Journal Gazette

Friday, November 10, 2017 1:00 am

New champs ready to start

Gamecocks have different cast; no streak for UConn

DOUG FEINBERG | Associated Press

NEW YORK – It's been five years since a team other than UConn started the season as defending women's champions. Coach Dawn Staley and her South Carolina Gamecocks have that honor this year.

After a thrilling Final Four that ended with the Gamecocks winning their first national championship, women's college basketball is ready to get started today.

South Carolina is among the teams looking to travel to Columbus, Ohio, for the Final Four next April. UConn, Stanford, Ohio State and Louisville will make the trip there this weekend to play a tipoff tournament at the site of the upcoming NCAA championship.

South Carolina returns only two starters this season, including star A'ja Wilson.

“I think when we first started practice we had a certain level of confidence and swagger,” Staley said. “But that team that won last year and the team that we have this year are very different. I made sure they were aware of that very quickly.”

Mississippi State ended the Huskies' 111-game winning streak on a last-second shot in overtime of the NCAA semifinal game.

With the longest winning streak in NCAA history behind them, UConn will aim for a fifth national championship in the past six seasons.

“I think what happened last season is exactly what needed to happen,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Not because we need any extra motivation to win. I just think we need it to lift all the stuff we've been carrying around with us the last couple of years and just play free and clear and be like everybody else, and understand that losing is not the end of the world.”

The top-ranked Huskies return a talented group led by three preseason AP All-Americans. Auriemma has another group of talented newcomers as well.

Milestone watch

Three coaches have a shot at 1,000 wins this year, with Auriemma (991), North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell (990) and Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer (977) within reach. Only Pat Summitt and Tara VanDerveer have reached 1,000 wins.

“I honestly had no idea I was that close, but that is incredible company to be a part of,” Auriemma said last summer. “The fact that there are three of us within reach of that mark just goes to show we've all been in the game for a while.”

Transfer epidemic

Once again a plethora of players switched schools this season, including stellar freshman Destiny Slocumb, who left Maryland to head to Oregon State. Notre Dame added Jessica Shephard from Nebraska, who was surprisingly granted immediate eligibility last week.

South Carolina will try to get Te'a Cooper eligible at semester break. She sat out last season at Tennessee with a knee injury then switched to the Gamecocks this summer.