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South Carolina's Staley confident in No. 1 Gamecocks without Cardoso

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The No. 1 team without its No. 1 player? You'd think South Carolina coach Dawn Staley would be far more concerned with her leading scorer and rebounder, Kamilla Cardoso, missing this week because of Olympic qualifying.

Instead, Staley is confident that her top-ranked, undefeated Gamecocks can continue to roll despite having their 6-foot-7 centerpiece unavailable.

“They're ready,” Staley said Wednesday.

Their first chance to show that comes Thursday night at home against struggling Missouri before a sold-out showcase game, also at home, against No. 11 UConn.

Cardoso is among the favorites for Southeastern Conference player of the year, averaging 13.8 points and 9.8 rebounds a game. She tops the league in field-goal percentage (.595) and blocks (60).

But Staley sees a group of talented, albeit less tall, forwards eager for the chance to make their mark in Cardoso's absence.

“We don't have anybody who's 6-7 and averaging a double-double,” Staley said. “But we're different and we're versatile and we have to lean in on that and not try to reproduce what we're missing."

Staley has faced playing without her star in the past. National champions and WNBA standouts A'ja Wilson and Aliyah Boston both missed time for the Gamecocks because of injuries.

“We just really keep it moving. We don't really harp not having them, we just harp on who's here," Staley said. “It's nothing against the injured player or nothing against Kamilla. It's just psychologically, if you start putting that to the forefront, those players are going to think you don't trust them.”

These Gamecocks (21-0, 9-0) have earned Staley's trust this season. They were picked to finish behind defending national champion LSU in the preseason after losing Boston and six other seniors from a group that reached the last three Final Fours.

Instead, the younger, less-experienced group has met every challenge it faced. It won all five games against ranked opponents, including a 76-70 showdown at LSU last month after trailing by 11 points.

Cardoso was a big part, but not the only factor in those victories, Staley said.

“It's definitely very different, she has a lot of energy and brings energy daily,” said Chloe Kitts, a 6-2 sophomore who has averaged nine points and six rebounds in 20 games, 19 of them starts.

“Everyone else is stepping up, everyone else is talking, leading," Kitts continued. “She's a big part of us, but we're ready.”

Along with Kitts, Staley said junior Sania Feagin and sophomore Ashlyn Watkins, both 6-3 post players, have had strong practices and will see lots of action around the basket the next couple of games.

Feagin gets pushed hard by Staley, the coach acknowledged, because she has lots of untapped potential. Watkins has had several splashy moments, including the program's second-ever dunk — she had the first one in team history as a freshman — last month against Kentucky.

Watkins is second on the team with 7.3 rebounds and second in the SEC behind Cardoso with 57 blocks.

Kitts said the team discussed players staying their lanes and not trying to do all that Cardoso has done this season.

“People just need to keep playing their roles,” Kitts said. “We don't need a hero, everyone just needs to do their job and we'll be good.”

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