The Daily Gamecock

5 dates to circle for South Carolina women's basketball

With media surrounding them, the team joins together one last time before the game begins.
With media surrounding them, the team joins together one last time before the game begins.

Just in case South Carolina's two newest women's basketball commits didn't get fans excited enough for the program, the 2016-17 regular season schedule was released Tuesday, featuring 19 games on national television. 

The non-conference schedule features five teams who received three seeds or better in last season's NCAA Tournament, including defending national champion Connecticut, and Texas, who reached the Elite Eight last spring.

The Gamecocks will open the regular season with Ohio State for the second straight season, but this year's matchup will take place in Columbus, Ohio. South Carolina topped the Buckeyes 88-80 in Colonial Life Arena last season.

Dawn Staley's team will also have Power 5 games away from Columbia against Texas, Duke and Louisville.  Duke was on last year's schedule, and the Blue Devils weren't able to keep up with the Gamecocks in the second half, falling 66-55.

The non-conference home slate features a three-game stretch in which South Carolina faces Minnesota, Clemson and UCLA. The Bruins, who received a No. 3 seed in last year's tournament, played the Gamecocks tough in Los Angeles last November, losing 68-65 after the game was tied in the final minutes. Clemson didn't have as much success, as South Carolina prevailed 67-41 in the upstate last season.

The Gamecocks open conference play on New Year's Day with a home game against Alabama. The schedule picks up quickly, as South Carolina will travel for back-to-back games against Auburn and Florida, both of whom made the NCAA Tournament last season. 

Staley's Gamecocks will face Georgia, Auburn and Kentucky twice in conference play in home-and-home series. The Wildcats, who have established a rivalry with South Carolina in recent years, will close out the regular season with a game in Colonial Life Arena. 

With 19 games against teams who made the tournament last season, there are plenty of dates for fans to circle. Let's take a look at the five biggest games on South Carolina's 2016-17 schedule.

5. Dec. 18 vs. UCLA 

The Bruins nearly came away with the upset on the West Coast last season, and with three of the team's top four scorers returning for this season, UCLA should bring the Gamecocks a challenge come December. Jordin Canada averaged 16.1 points per game  last season as a sophomore, and she scored 21 against South Carolina last season. Sharpshooter Kari Korver (67 made threes) and post presence Monique Billings (12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game) are back as well. This matchup is the last big game of the team's non-conference schedule before taking on Connecticut in February, so it's crucial for South Carolina to build momentum before opening SEC play. 

4. Feb. 26 vs. Kentucky 

The Wildcats lost a lot of talent to graduation or transfer, but it's hard to believe head coach Matthew Mitchell won't have a strong team on the floor, particularly by the end of the season. Even with some key players having moved on, Kentucky has a fantastic duo of seniors in All-SEC First Team guard Makayla Epps and forward Evelyn Akhator, who nearly averaged a double-double last season. The Wildcats upset the Gamecocks in the final game of the regular season two years ago, and South Carolina can't afford to be trending in the wrong direction as the team tries to win its third-straight SEC Tournament.

3. Nov. 14 at Ohio State 

The Buckeyes lost an absolute shootout in Columbia last season, and the team would end up losing in the Sweet 16 to Tennessee to end its season. Still, Ohio State has a lethal scoring option in junior guard Kelsey Mitchell, who averaged 26.1 points per game last season and scored 36 against South Carolina. The Buckeyes must find a viable replacement for second-leading scorer Ameryst Alston, who graduated last year, but fellow double-digit scorers Alexa Hart and Shayla Cooper return for an offense that scored 86 points per game in 2015-16.  As the Gamecocks attempt to move on from Tiffany Mitchell and Khadijah Sessions, the new starting backcourt will have the challenge of stopping the Buckeye offense as South Carolina tries to jell in the season opener in a hostile environment. 

2. Dec. 1 at Texas 

Texas had the misfortune of running into Connecticut in the Elite Eight last season, but the Longhorns played quality basketball all year long. They'll undoubtedly miss the presence of Imani Boyette in the post, however, as no other player averaged more than 4.5 rebounds per game last season. Boyette also averaged just a shade under three blocks per contest. On the other hand, Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins will be back to lead the offense after combining for 23 points per game last season. This game will be a true test of South Carolina's frontcourt of A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates. Early in the season, Texas may not have figured out its rim protection yet, and the duo of bigs must win this game for South Carolina.

1. Feb. 13 at Connecticut 

There's not a women's basketball fan in the country who won't be watching this one. The Huskies beat the Gamecocks by 12 in Columbia last season, but their dominant trio of Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson has moved on to the WNBA. There's no question Geno Auriemma has the talent to replace them, but this could be the most vulnerable Connecticut team in years. South Carolina hasn't gotten over the hump to beat the Huskies yet (to be fair, few teams have), and this could be the Gamecocks' greatest opportunity to cement themselves at the top of the women's basketball world. 


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