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Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)

 

COLUMBIA — Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk blamed South Carolina basketball coach Dawn Staley on Tuesday for promoting an unhealthy atmosphere, claiming Missouri players were spit on and had racial epithets hurled at them by USC fans following the Gamecocks' 64-54 victory Sunday.

The contentious game at Colonial Life Arena came three weeks after a testy USC loss at Missouri that featured an on-court scuffle between players, two ejections, two flagrant fouls and a technical foul.

Sterk's comments, that Staley "promoted" the atmosphere, could be just the beginning of what's shaping up to be a nasty confrontation between athletic departments.

"It wasn't a great atmosphere. It was really kind of unhealthy, if you will. We had players spit on and called the N-word, and things like that," Sterk said on a Tuesday afternoon interview with KTGR radio. "It was not a good environment, and unfortunately, I think coach Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere, and it's unfortunate that she felt she had to do that."

Sterk's comments were followed by a release from USC AD Ray Tanner around 90 minutes later.

"The commitment to a secure environment for everyone at our home games, including fans, student-athletes, coaches and staff from the home and visiting teams is of the utmost importance. In anticipation of this rivalry game, the athletics department provided security for the Missouri basketball team, above its standard operating procedure," Tanner said in a statement. "Upon hearing the accusations regarding our crowd's behavior towards the Missouri team, the athletics department conducted a review of our operations from the game, including interviews with staff and security personnel. In this review, we received no confirmation of the alleged behavior directed at the visiting team by fans at the game."

A USC spokesperson said that Staley does not have a comment at this time. Staley is scheduled to speak to media Wednesday afternoon to preview the Gamecocks' Thursday game hosting No. 1 Connecticut.

The war of words started when former Missouri player Sierra Michaelis, who attended the game, tweeted that USC fans spit on Missouri players after the game. Missouri coach Robin Pingeton was asked about it Tuesday, and while she didn't confirm or deny it, she said she was disappointed in some things that transpired.

Staley complained about officiating during the loss at Missouri three weeks ago, wondering why All-American forward A'ja Wilson was hit with two fouls in the first four minutes and why two of the same three officials that called a USC loss at Missouri last season were working the game this year.

The Gamecocks lost with Wilson fouling out, and Staley was ejected after an earned technical foul, then a technical charged to USC after a substitution delay. She gave a sarcastic wave to the crowd as she left, and afterward there were reports of Missouri fans referring to her team as "thugs."

Staley said that she'd heard that kind of remark throughout her tenure at Temple, and if her players had responded to Missouri's physical brand of play, they'd have been referred to as "street fighters." Pingeton said she hadn't heard the fans' remarks to Staley, but if it happened, it was ignorant.

"First of all, that really disappoints me to hear that, and if that came from our fans, it's really disappointing," she said. "I've got a lot of respect for Dawn Staley."

Staley didn't say anything to goad the Tigers before the rematch, only stating that if Wilson was allowed to play her game, the Gamecocks would be tough to beat. USC's fans, the nation's leaders in attendance the past three years and currently in line to do it in a fourth, were lively and energetic from the start.

Tigers star guard Sophie Cunningham was booed every time she touched the ball. The fans also loudly protested every time players collided.

The Tigers and Gamecocks were in a scuffle just before halftime that had Alexis Jennings and Kayla Michael on the floor trying to claim a loose ball, and then other players got involved. Cunningham and USC's Doniyah Cliney had to be separated, each earning a flagrant foul, and two Tigers players were ejected for leaving the bench.

At the end of the game, Cliney was shaken up near the end of the Missouri bench and surrounded by players and TV crews. Nobody recorded video of fans spitting, but there is no video of the Tigers leaving through the tunnel.

It's hard to see how spitting could happen without being seen. The area behind Missouri's bench was filled with Missouri fans, and it's adjacent to the tunnel for visiting teams. While the tunnel is surrounded around and above by railings that fans can stand behind, there are also numerous security guards making sure the visiting team can get off the floor.

Yet asked specifically about it Tuesday, Pingeton didn't deny it.

"I was really disappointed with some things that transpired. There's no place in our game for that. Fans have to be better all around, our side, their side. These are daughters," Pingeton said. "There were some things that were really unfortunate that transpired. Not only verbally, but some other things you alluded to (the spitting claim). It was really unfortunate. You have two fan bases that are passionate. You've got to clean it up a little bit."

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