DULUTH, Ga. -- The question for South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was about her team's spirits, about how she can keep the mood positive after such a disappointing loss to Kentucky.
Staley was sitting on a riser, perched behind a microphone. She looked dejected, which made sense. Just around the corner from where she sat, No. 2-seeded Tennessee and No. 3 Texas A&M were about to tip off the second semifinal -- a game that, when the day started, most figured would decide who would play Staley's top-seeded Gamecocks in the finals of the SEC women's basketball tournament.
But South Carolina did not advance to the finals. Instead, the Gamecocks, losers of only three games during the regular season, played one of their worst games of the season, committing nine turnovers in the first 7 minutes, 12 seconds.
The remaining 32:48 wasn't much better.
South Carolina lost the game, 68-58, and also possibly a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks won't play again for about two weeks, which must feel like an awful long time to them, and also leads us back to the original question.
What can Staley do about the spirits of her team between now and then?
"I really don't want their spirits up at this point," Staley said. "I want them to feel the disappointment of this loss. They need to feel our performance, because if we perform this way again, it will be a huge disappointment to our season."
Up until now, it has been a fantastic season for the young Gamecocks, who start three sophomores and two juniors. For the first time in program history, they won the SEC regular season title. Most experts had them earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament -- that is, as long as they played well in this conference tournament. But that didn't happen -- at least not at the level South Carolina is capable of playing. And now the Gamecocks are dependent on the results of other teams.
"It's out of our control," Staley said of that potential No. 1 seed. "We had control of it, but not anymore."
The Gamecocks certainly will keep an eye on Sunday's final between No. 4 seed Kentucky and Tennessee (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. EST). The Lady Vols won a well-played semifinal over the Aggies, 86-77, and also moved into position for a possible top seed. Isabelle Harrison finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds for Tennessee, which on Sunday will attempt to win its 17th SEC tournament title.
To upend South Carolina, Kentucky used its trademark swarming defense, as well as a balanced offense. Guard Bria Goss scored 14 points, leading four Kentucky players in double figures. If Kentucky can pull off another upset -- hang another loss on Tennessee -- it's possible South Carolina could retain that No. 1 seed as the best team coming out of the SEC.
Most of South Carolina's success this season has come from a superior inside-out game. But on Saturday, that kind of effective ball movement was nonexistent. Part of it was Kentucky's defensive game plan, which collapsed inward with the ball, making it difficult for South Carolina's post players -- Elem Ibiam, Asia Dozier, Aleighsa Welch -- to pass out to the perimeter. Nearly every time the ball went inside, it was pinned down there, often beneath the backboard, resulting in either a turnover or a difficult, contested shot. The usual elasticity of the Gamecocks' offense was snapped. South Carolina starting guards Khadijah Sessions and Tiffany Mitchell finished 5-for-15 from the floor, combining for 13 points and eight turnovers. (By comparison, the two came into the game averaging a combined 22.9 points and only 4.4 turnovers per game.)
"At halftime, we wanted to continue to work the ball inside, but that just didn't happen at the pace we need to win basketball games," Staley said.
But that's just X's and O's. The bigger question for Staley and her young team, ranked No. 5 in the country, is how to bounce back from such a dismal performance at such a critical juncture of the season. Some people contend that losing just before the NCAA tournament can actually be a good thing, can expose weaknesses. These folks would argue that two weeks of practice leaves plenty of time to remedy the wrongs, to tinker with the machine before the main event -- the NCAA tournament.
Of course, there is something else to consider: how to remove the doubt that Kentucky might have just implanted into the psyche of Staley's team. Maybe they're not as good as people say; maybe they're too young to make a run to this year's Final Four; maybe they'll play poorly in the tournament, too.
In the locker room after Saturday's loss, the Gamecocks looked like their coach: dejected. Mitchell was sitting on the wooden bench, answering questions about whether any good could be found in a loss this bad.
"No, I don't think so," said Mitchell, the SEC player of the year. "I don't really think anything about this would be good. We should have won this game. We were exposed, to an extent."
Staley has two weeks before her team takes the court again. And only she knows what her young team needs, only she knows how to make her players believe that the next time they play, the result will be totally different.