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December 19, 2011
Corner truly turned? South Carolina will have to wait and see.
But the Gamecocks are surely feeling great right now.
"I think it was our night tonight," coach Dawn Staley said after a 79-48 pummeling of No. 18 North Carolina on Sunday. "It was just our night tonight, and our team never looked back."
The Gamecocks have a lot of games left to play, but after absolutely dominating one of the country's historically great teams on Sunday, they feel like they're right there with the rest of the nation's heavyweights. The new Top 25 is due out today, and while it would be a stretch for USC (9-2) to be vaulted into the rankings after not receiving a vote last week, perhaps the Gamecocks could crack the bottom section containing Nos. 26-40.
USC lost two games by a combined seven points, one to then-No. 11 Penn State. It has road wins against Illinois, Clemson and Xavier. It crushed the Tar Heels in what may have been the most resounding win in Staley's four-year tenure.
As mentioned, long way to go, but very good feelings right now.
"I think we're just going to come out confident every night we play," Markeisha Grant said. "We're challenged in practice, so it just makes us produce in the games."
Like her overall record, Staley has improved every year when playing ranked teams. From 0-7 her first season to 3-9 in the second, Staley went 2-6 last season, but the two wins were among her final three tries.
So far this year, Staley is 1-1. Going by last week's Top 25, the Gamecocks have five remaining games against Top 25 competition - No. 6 Tennessee, No. 8 Kentucky (twice), No. 13 Georgia and No. 20 Vanderbilt. LSU received votes in the poll last week.
Staley's entire agenda this year and in previous years has been to challenge her team early, because while the SEC has top competition, the steepest competition awaits in the NCAA tournament. It's never been a long-shot goal for Staley at USC, it's been a case of knowing the team would some day be good enough to get there.
The Gamecocks feel that this is their year. A tightly woven roster with chemistry first and talent second is beginning to click smoothly into gear. While USC is scoring in bunches and has proven it can be dangerous from any spot on the floor, its defense is what's driving the early-season run.
Being aggressive early with defenders Courtney Newton and Charenee Stephens allows guards La'Keisha Sutton, Ieasia Walker and Grant to get into their offensive grooves, and if they're not hitting, Staley can simply bring in her sixth and seventh players - posts Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch, who have already developed a knack of knowing where the other will be.
Sutton described the Gamecocks as "pick your poison" last week and the team is running through exam break like it has a bus to catch. USC is streaking with a run of outstanding play and can't wait to get back on the court again.
That will come at noon on Wednesday when the Gamecocks host Savannah State. USC is loving the success, but great teams have to sustain success.
"We actually scheduled this two days after this game because we felt like we would put a lot of energy into it," Staley said. "For our players, we practice every day at 12:30 during the year. It's an opportunity for us to play during the time we practice."
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