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Dawn Staley fires back at Missouri AD, calling his accusations 'serious and false'

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley high fives players before an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated Texas A&M 61-59. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

On the eve of her team’s most high-profile game of the season, South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley hardly spoke about the challenge Thursday’s matchup against top-ranked UConn presents.

Staley instead spent much of Wednesday’s news conference defending herself and her school’s fans against accusations made by Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk the previous day.

Sterk told KTGR Radio on Tuesday night that the atmosphere at South Carolina was “unhealthy” when Missouri lost to the Gamecocks last Sunday in an emotionally charged matchup between two of the Southeastern Conference’s top teams. Not only did Sterk insist that Tigers players were “spit on and called the N-word” by South Carolina fans, he also bizarrely held Staley responsible for inciting those alleged incidents.

To nobody’s surprise, Staley took particular offense to Sterk’s comment that she “promoted that kind of atmosphere.” Staley described Sterk’s accusations as “serious and false” but made it clear she does not intend to engage in a public war of words with the Missouri athletic director over his comments.

“They’re going to be handled,” Staley said. “They’re not going to be handled right here. They’re not going to be handled in the way they were dealt. They’re going to be handled in the right manner.”

While Staley at first declined further comment on the matter, she later pointed out that no evidence has “crossed her desk” corroborating claims that Missouri players were spat on or called racial slurs. Staley also vehemently defended South Carolina fans, describing them as “loyal” and “passionate.”

“They understand basketball and they understand how to act in the stands,” Staley said. “If I could uproot them and put them in every women’s basketball arena, every coach that represented that particular fanbase would be tremendously proud of what they bring to the table. I stand by our fans. I stand by what they represent, I stand by how they cheer and I stand every single thing that they bring to the building, because it’s appropriate and well within the rules of the game.”

Whether South Carolina fans actually behaved appropriately on Sunday remains largely unclear at this time because no video evidence has emerged corroborating Sterk’s claims. Sterk also declined further comment to Yahoo Sports on Wednesday through a Missouri spokesman.

South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner said the school’s internal review did not uncover proof that Missouri players were spit on or called a racial slur, but several members of the Tigers traveling party backed Sterk’s version of events. Former Missouri player Sierra Michaelis was the first to say her ex-teammates were spat on, Tigers coach Robin Pingeton alluded to instances of poor fan behavior at South Carolina in a news conference on Tuesday and play-by-play man Brad Tregnago tweeted Tuesday night that he too heard the same vitriol at South Carolina that Sterk did.

There’s certainly no denying that the atmosphere for Missouri’s visit to South Carolina was unusually hostile because of the recent history between the two teams.

Three weeks earlier, the Tigers upset the reigning national champion Gamecocks in a hotly contested game rife with hard fouls and raised elbows. Staley, who was ejected from that January 7 matchup for arguing with the referees, was still seething about Missouri’s physical play when asked about it during the buildup to Sunday’s rematch.

“I think there were some things out there that weren’t basketball, that weren’t basketball plays,” Staley told The State last Friday.

“And I get that you want to take key people out of the game. We want to do that. If we get the opportunity to get [Missouri star Sophie Cunningham] out of the game, yes, we’re going to try to do that, but within the confines of the rules of the game.

If those comments are what Sterk was referring to when he suggested that Staley was to blame for Sunday’s alleged incidents, then that is a massive leap. The Gamecocks crowd booed Missouri from the opening tipoff until the final buzzer because that’s what fans do in a rivalry game, especially one marred by a second-quarter tussle that resulted in the ejection of two Tigers players for leaving the bench.

It did not sit well with many at South Carolina that Sterk went after someone of Staley’s stature in such a strange way. Staley is a national championship coach, a six-time WNBA all-star and the successor to Geno Auriemma as head coach of the U.S. women’s national team.

Among those to defend Staley were Tanner and South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin.

The timing of Sterk’s comments are certainly less than ideal for seventh-ranked South Carolina with the UConn game now only one day away. Staley pledged Wednesday to do her best not to let this become a distraction as the Gamecocks prepare to try to topple the unbeaten Huskies.

“Anytime that you have to deal with distractions, you deal with them and you prioritize,” Staley said. “The priority right now is UConn. That’s been my focus. Did I lose a little sleep last night? Yes. Yes, obviously. But there’s another game to be played. I’m responsible for 12 individuals that want to beat UConn, so I have to get my mind right to prep and try to win the game.”

– – – – – – –

Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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