March 7, 2018
By Brad Muller | More Features
Doniyah Cliney isn’t one to crow and isn’t always the Gamecocks’ vocal leader, but it was her soft-spoken words prior at the start of the SEC Tournament last week in Nashville that set the tone for South Carolina on its way to a record fourth consecutive conference tournament championship victory. Cliney’s foreshadowing to head coach Dawn Staley in practice on the eve of their first game against Tennessee wasn’t meant to be boastful, but more matter of fact.
“We were walking back and forth in between free throws, and I asked her if she was ready,” Cliney said. “She said ‘yeah, I’m ready. Are you ready?’ I said ‘of course I’m ready. Why wouldn’t I be? This is our territory. I don’t have anything to worry about. I believe we’re going to win.’ That’s just where my mind was. I told my teammates I was going to give them everything I had for the full 40 minutes.”
Staley made her repeat that to the team after practice ended.
“I wasn’t expecting her to say that,” Cliney blushed. “It caught me off guard. I said that I believe we’re going to win. I was amped up.”
Staley reminded the Gamecocks about it again in the locker room after their 62-51 win over previously undefeated and No. 2 ranked Mississippi State in Sunday’s championship game.
“There was a calm that came over me,” Staley said after Sunday’s game of Cliney’s comments. “I believed it.”
“I wasn’t expecting her to say that, so it gave me a lot of confidence,” Cliney said, admitting she is normally more comfortable in leading through her play instead of using her voice. “I usually like to stay more behind the scenes.”
This has given me a lot of confidence and faith in my teammates with the bond that we have.
Winning three games in three days is no easy feat, especially when all three opponents were ranked in the top 25 nationally, and you have the target on your back, not only from winning the national championship the year before, but also having won the SEC Tournament the three previous years as well.
“Before we got there, I just knew that we were going to win,” Cliney said. “We always come to the SEC Tournament as a totally different team. We know what the goal is from the first day of preparation for the tournament, all the way to the end of the championship game.
“That attitude came from the previous wins. That helps a lot. The SEC Tournament is the hardest tournament out there among all the conferences. Playing against all those good teams motivates us to be the best and keep winning. It’s the best feeling, ever.”
The red-shirt junior backed up her confidence with some big plays in the tournament, including a 14-point outburst in the semifinal win over Georgia, and a clutch 3-pointer against Mississippi State as part of her six points, five rebounds and three assists on the day.
“The coaches just told me to be confident in my shot,” Cliney said. “Ever since I hurt my shoulder, I’ve been less confident in my shot. In shoot-around, I was shooting and they were going in. I was happy. I actually wanted to cry. I was happy with the results. I’m just glad to make those big shots in the game.”
Cliney doesn’t come to the bench much, and played the full 40 minutes in championship game. While it’s exhausting, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You can’t get tired in a championship game,” Cliney said. “There’s no way. I don’t even ask for a sub anymore.”
“I felt all 40 minutes yesterday (Monday),” she added with a laugh. “I feel great right now, though.”
Cliney has seen the Gamecocks rattle off an SEC record 12 consecutive wins in the tournament over the last four years.
“It means a lot,” Cliney said. “It shows what this program is all about. We want to stay in that conversation of being SEC Champions.”
Adding another piece of hardware to the trophy case is great, but the uniqueness of cutting down the nets and taking a piece of the arena home for winning a tournament is always special.
“It doesn’t get old,” Cliney grinned.
With the NCAA tournament approaching and one more year of eligibility next year, Cliney isn’t afraid to say she wants more.
“This has given me a lot of confidence and faith in my teammates with the bond that we have,” Cliney said. “We know when we have to step up. Just to have that faith in each other and the coaching staff felt pretty cool.”
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