The undefeated South Carolina women's basketball team, led by Coach Dawn Staley, are bracing for challenging encounters against No. 24 North Carolina and Duke in their upcoming road games. Despite a strong start to the season, including a remarkable 100-71 victory over Notre Dame in Paris, the team faces a new test: playing in hostile environments away from home.

The Gamecocks, who boast a 5-0 record, are set to participate in the ACC/SEC Challenge against North Carolina (5-2) on Thursday. They will then face Duke, another Triangle rival, on Sunday. This marks the first time Staley's young squad, inexperienced in such atmospheres, will encounter significant opposition from the crowd.

“Yeah, it’s a huge challenge,” Staley said, as reported by Pete Iacobelli of the Associated Press. “We haven’t been in a hostile environment like we’re going to be in the next two (games) I imagine.”

Gamecocks ready for the challenge

South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley with stars in her eyes

In preparation, Staley's team, nicknamed “The Highlighters,” have been pushed by male practice players to elevate their game, a strategy aimed at simulating the pressure they will face.

“They made us think about what we’re going to be up against” at North Carolina, she said. “So it was good for us to walk away thinking there’s more to do.”

Since their eye-catching season debut in France, the Gamecocks have continued their dominance with substantial victories over Maryland and Clemson. Forward Chloe Kitts, averaging 9.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, expressed her excitement and readiness for the upcoming challenges.

However, the transition from last year's experienced team, which reached three consecutive Final Fours and won the 2022 national title, to a younger group has not been without its hurdles, particularly in practice. Freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, who averages 15 points per game, exemplifies both the promise and the growing pains of the team, with her dynamic play offset by a high number of personal fouls and turnovers.

Staley remains optimistic, emphasizing the importance of the older players in guiding the team. Despite the absence of Aliyah Boston, the WNBA’s rookie of the year, who was instrumental in the team's previous success, the Gamecocks are confident in maintaining their high standards. The memory of a tough Sweet 16 game against the Tar Heels last year, where South Carolina narrowly clinched a 69-61 victory, serves as a reminder of the challenges ahead.

“We’re going to play the same way we’ve played this season, even though this season just started,” Kitts said. “I feel like we’re still going to stay together and play our game, not let anything else get in the way, not let the refs, not let the environment, not let the other team get in our way.”