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December 21, 2011
SAVANNAH STATE TIGERS (5-6)
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (9-2)
When: Noon today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
Savannah State's probable starters: G Ezinne Kalu 5-8 So. (20.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg); G Blessing Uba 5-9 So. (8.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg); F Jasmine Kirkland 5-10 So. (7.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg); F Alisha Nelson 6-2 Sr. (3.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg); C Charmaine Greene 6-2 So. (1.2ppg, 1.6 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Jr. (6.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg); G La'Keisha Sutton 5-8 Sr. (9.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G Markeisha Grant 5-6 Sr. (10.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G Courtney Newton 5-9 Sr. (1.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg); F Charenee Stephens 6-0 Sr. (4.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina comes back home after a neutral-site game on Sunday. The last game before a week-long break for Christmas. Part of a day-night doubleheader with the men's team, which hosts Southeastern Louisiana at 7 p.m. The Gamecocks have only allowed an average of 34 points to their last three straight opponents, while out-scoring them by a combined 100-plus points. USC remains on track for its best start since 2002-03 (14-2). Sutton, the reigning SEC Player of the Week, has improved her shooting percentage from around .260 to .333 over the past two games. The last home non-conference game of the season.
Next up: South Carolina tips off at Drexel at 5 p.m. on Dec. 28.
So now what?
Next game, that's what. Yes, South Carolina beat the tar out of then-No. 18 North Carolina, 79-48, in its last game. Yes, guard La'Keisha Sutton scored her 1,000th career point and won SEC Player of the Week honors due to her success over the past seven days. Yes, the Gamecocks received 10 votes in The Associated Press Top 25, ranking them No. 29 in the country after not being ranked during the coach Dawn Staley era.
It's Savannah State, 5-6 and nowhere near the Tar Heel team that USC just whipped. The Gamecocks (9-2) should win going away.
Maybe so, but USC is not yet at the point where it can rest on what "should" happen. It wasn't that long ago that the Gamecocks were struggling to win 10 games in a season, to say nothing of having a shot to clinch 10 wins before the Christmas break.
"It's something we make our players aware of," Staley said on Tuesday. "We're coming off a North Carolina game. This is another team on our schedule. It's a good game for us heading into the Christmas break.
"We're striving to play at a standard of excellence. Here's another opportunity to put that on display."
The Gamecocks have been doing that in each of their last three games, blowing opponents away with a deadly mixture of tenacious defense and hot shooting. It seems that the first play is always senior Markeisha Grant stroking a 3-pointer (Grant has played the last three weeks on fire) and if USC doesn't get the opening tip, it soon has the ball due to its swarming defense.
"That's our mentality," Sutton said. "Hit first."
Staley said that defense is her team's best attribute and the offense is flowing from it. The Gamecocks won't out-height many opponents, but get after the ball by hustling and flying into the paint for rebounds. Forward Charenee Stephens, the peskiest of defenders, makes her living pushing bigs out of their comfort zones and playing so low that it's hard to keep her in front; when they turn around, another USC player knocks the ball loose.
Sutton, after playing the early season a little below 100 percent healthy, is starting to find her shooting touch with 33 points over two games, and USC's posts, while not dominating, are providing the same relentless improvement every game. In short, this is the team that Staley has been waiting on.
But there is a long way to go.
"I'm excited because we think about the three years prior to having this type of week," Staley said. "We've been on the other end of it. We're not going to get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. We're going to try to maintain and continue to play the type of basketball we're capable of playing."
Sutton repeated what she said after Sunday's win - it was nice, but the Gamecocks couldn't afford to rest on it.
"Just coming out and preparing with the same intensity, the same focus level," she said. "The same amount of enthusiasm and confidence. No letdowns."
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