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February 26, 2012
ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS (21-6, 10-5 SEC)
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (20-8, 9-6)
When: 2 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: SEC Network
Tickets: Available at the box office
Arkansas' probable starters: G Lyndsay Harris 5-9 Sr. (9.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg); G C'eira Ricketts 5-9 Sr. (11.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg); F Sarah Watkins 6-3 Jr. (11.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg); F Ashley Daniels 6-2 Sr. (7.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg); F Dominique Robinson 6-0 So. (7.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Jr. (7.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg); G La'Keisha Sutton 5-8 Sr. (10.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Markeisha Grant 5-6 Sr. (11.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg); F Courtney Newton 5-9 Sr. (0.6 ppg, 1.6 rpg); F Charenee Stephens 6-0 Sr. (4.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina concludes its regular season after yet another improvement under fourth-year coach Dawn Staley. Sutton, Grant, Stephens, Newton and Ebony Wilson will be honored for Senior Day at approximately 1:40 p.m. Arkansas won the first game 68-47 on Feb. 9. The Razorbacks lead the all-time series 16-8, but USC leads 6-5 in Columbia. Aleighsa Welch will miss her second straight game after spraining her knee against Alabama. USC is hopeful she will be able to play in the SEC tournament. The Gamecocks can tie their program-high in SEC wins with a victory today.
Next up: South Carolina will begin the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday at a time to be determined.
It would be easy to look at South Carolina's season and think that it was only a matter of time. When Dawn Staley was hired four years ago, visions of constant NCAA tournaments began dancing in heads, as the Gamecocks seemed poised to recapture that long-ago magic that had made them a perennial contender for their first 15 seasons.
With 20 wins, USC is on the verge of appearing in its first NCAA tournament since 2003, after today's final regular-season game and next week's SEC tournament. The results shouldn't matter - the Gamecocks' RPI and strength of schedule should do more than enough to overcome even two straight losses.
The reckoning of a four-year project should come in two weeks. Staley didn't think it would take this long, but it has come.
But to think it all happened only this year would be false. It didn't just come together in 2011-12. This was a long journey, filled with setbacks and delays.
"It began at the very beginning, three and a half years ago," Staley said. "We know what works. It's not a guessing game. We just didn't think it would take as long as it's taken. For our players to really get it, it probably took place after (last year's) WNIT. Sometimes you just have to take small steps and that was one of ours."
The Gamecocks host Arkansas today and will bid farewell to five seniors, all of whom have been around for some of the ride and most who have been here for all of it. Saying goodbye is never pleasant, and while Staley describes herself as a very non-emotional person, it might be difficult to see these five hear their last ovation at Colonial Life Arena.
These are the building blocks for what Staley hopes to achieve. If the work that this group put in carries over to the players that will return next year, and they can keep passing it on to the freshman class and the future freshmen classes, USC will be where Staley promised it would be.
"They could have easily taken the easy road and said, 'This is too hard, why do we have to do it this way, why, why, why?' We could have had a lot of, 'Whys?' They saw more, beyond the why," Staley said. "They leaned on each other, they found some inner pride to stick it out, to see where this thing would lead them."
Courtney Newton could have quit after her first knee injury in college, or her second, which led to a hip surgery. She could have quit after being offered a medical redshirt scholarship, or after reaching the WNIT last year, when she had her degree but also another year of eligibility.
The reason she didn't was she wanted to have one more chance. Growing up in Etowah, Tenn., and watching Tennessee rule women's basketball during her childhood, Newton wanted to be part of that. She earned a scholarship to an SEC institution and thought that constant NCAA trips were a given, until the injuries, a coaching change, player attrition and just plain losing taught her otherwise.
"We were disappointed that we didn't get the NCAA (last year)," Newton said. "We didn't finish the season like we wanted to. That was our fault. We knew we had a lot of pieces to our puzzle."
Newton, the only one of the seniors to come in under a different regime, has been through the wringer personally and with the team. Her contributions and chances to make those contributions decreased with every injury, yet she still chose to come back and play; and even as the team's win total increased from year to year and the NCAA tournament got closer and closer, the Gamecocks never took that final step.
The WNIT last year was a good sign, but Newton wanted more. Anointed one of the team's co-captains before the season, Staley challenged her to get every member of the team to believe in this year's promise.
"During the summer, it was about chemistry and getting everybody together. Losing the last couple of games, it hurt us," Newton said. "Everyone was here in July. Getting the young girls ready, getting the transfers ready, getting in the open gyms. We knew this was the last go-round."
With Newton and her fellow seniors leading the charge, plus juniors like Ieasia Walker and Ashley Bruner who had been through the wars, it was easy to indoctrinate the new players. There were no egos, a problem in the past, and no haughtiness - the youngsters learned the intensity from the upperclassmen, as it's supposed to be.
"With this group, it wasn't as hard as some of the other groups I've been with," Newton said. "They were really a lot more mature than some of the other freshmen. When they get here, we start. It's no sitting around doing nothing. There wasn't a lot of time for them to choose to do anything else. They were really focused this year. It made it easier on us because of that."
Newton, finally 100 percent healthy, resumed her starting spot and although she doesn't contribute much in points, she's satisfied. She can't wait for a week from today, when the Gamecocks' name should flash on the screen when the NCAA tournament pairings are announced.
"We hit that spell where we lost those three games, and we said, 'OK, are we going to choose what we did last year, or are we going to choose to fight back?'" Newton said. "That Tennessee win and how we won those four in a row really showed how we grew as a team."
The most unknown of the senior class, Ebony Wilson's role is the most vital of the five's. She's the defensive specialist, the player put into the game to shut down the opponent's top shooter.
As the Gamecocks rose to respectability climbed this year, Wilson was a big part of it. Hardly a threat to score, Wilson could always be found at the top of the key, hounding the opposing ball-handler as her teammates got set behind her.
"I think that's my strength," Wilson said. "Defender, driver, bring the energy, being a leader. Showing them the ropes, since I've been here."
Wilson transferred to USC from Rend Lake (Ill.) College after one year, toting a 15.2 point-average but knowing that she would probably be behind some established stars. The Gamecocks were working into a new system behind lethal scorer Valerie Nainima, prized recruit Kelsey Bone and all-SEC freshman La'Keisha Sutton, and Wilson was going to have to find a role.
Everybody wants to be the top scorer, and Wilson had been that in junior college. At USC, she concentrated on her defense, practiced hard every day and Staley noticed.
Her minutes began to rise and her playing time became a constant. It's no coincidence that USC's defense has been the biggest reason for the success this year, and that Wilson has been a huge part of that.
"I think the program had potential," Wilson said. "That was one reason why I came here. South Carolina was in good position to be where it is right now. I made a commitment, so whatever happened, we had to make it work. I think we all had the tools to be a great team, but we had to work at it."
To watch Charenee Stephens play is a case of wonder never ceasing. Generously listed at 6-feet, Stephens proves that a team doesn't have to have the classic "big girl" in order to win.
It just has to have a player who refuses to be moved.
"I'm strong," Stephens said. "I came here strong because we had a weight-training program when I was in high school. I'm still able to go up and down and still be strong with the big girls.
"It's not always about all the points you get. It's about doing the things that help us get the win. And I want to win."
Stephens is rarely taller than the players she defends in the paint, and rarely bulkier. But she sets her feet and pushes them out of their comfort zone, forcing an altered shot, then quickly spins around to box out and snare the rebound. The putback in traffic has become her specialty, one that she's teaching freshman Aleighsa Welch so that she can inherit the mantle next year.
It's about that strength to stay in place, and the attitude to not be pushed around. Stephens, as easygoing off the court as she is mean and nasty on it, worked at it through her four years as much as she did her mentality about handling the building of the program.
"I was used to winning," Stephens said. "Coach Staley was new, we were new and the system was new. It was difficult at times, not getting those wins. It took a toll on us at times. It was hard. Not getting those wins made it even worse. But every year since then, we've grown and gotten stronger."
Stephens saw the losses taking a toll on Staley as well as her teammates. It built to a point last year, when as Staley said, she quit screaming and started coaching. The Gamecocks almost immediately improved.
"We didn't have the discipline that she wanted us to have," Stephens said. "I think it frustrated her a lot. Being a head coach, she had a lot of stuff to deal with and an undisciplined team was the last thing she needed to deal with. We told her, 'We do know how things work and you can lighten up on us a little bit.' It took some time, but now I think we pretty much got it."
The getting so close and not getting there, then finding herself in the WNIT last year instead of the NCAA tournament, was frustrating to Stephens, but she saw that it was a team-wide pain. She was as active as the rest of the players in getting everybody into the gym over the summer and making sure that not only would this year be a success, but future years would be as well.
"I think we did make the ultimate decision to get better and to show people that we don't have to be on the borderline," she said. "We can be one of those teams that automatically get a bid. Powerhouse schools come out of here, and we're showing people that we're showing up."
The newest of the five, after transferring in two years ago from College of Central Florida, Markeisha Grant bided her time early but found herself late. She had four straight double-figure games to close last season and was the team's leading scorer in postseason play, giving the Gamecocks another guard that could hit a 3-pointer, drive the lane or stick a rebound back in the basket.
The summer break didn't affect her, as she spent it honing her craft at a week-long "point guard college" in Pennsylvania. Then Grant returned to school, picked up where she left off and is leading the team in scoring this year.
"Coach Staley told me she just needed someone to come in and score and help direct our team," Grant said. "Coming in right away, I thought I would play some point guard. I didn't think I would start, but that wasn't a big thing for me."
In the SEC season, Grant truly took over the team's go-to role, even as Sutton has since nabbed it back. For three straight games, USC's first offensive play was to find Grant on the wing and let her shoot a 3-pointer - for three straight games, it worked.
Grant credits it to learning under Staley, the point guard who influenced so many youths across the country. She also realized the impact of the end-of-season meetings last year.
"Coach Staley told us our goals and expectations for this coming season," Grant said. "Everybody was together. We had great chemistry early on."
Something not many know about La'Keisha Sutton - after her first two years at USC, she was ready to call it quits and try her luck somewhere else.
"I wasn't happy here. I wasn't used to losing," Sutton said. "I didn't take an official visit like everybody else did, I just came here. Coach Staley sat me down and we had this long talk, that things would get better, to trust the process. She just promised me that everything would be OK. I wound up sticking around."
It's hard to believe, after watching Sutton take over the team in each of the past two years, the one who wants the ball in a crucial situation and often delivers. Those aren't the plays and that isn't the commitment of someone who wanted out.
But Sutton did. After earning All-SEC freshman honors, Sutton wanted to return somewhere closer to her native New Jersey. "My high-school coaches and AAU coaches were looking at other schools," she said. "Because we were losing and I was down south. I heard it, but I believed in coach Staley that everything was going to be OK. It was my adamant belief in coach Staley. My first two years, I was ready to go."
The Gamecocks are lucky she didn't. When this journey sees its dream realized in two weeks, it will look back to how Sutton never quit, and how that example carried over into the team.
Sutton is the mainstay in the pre-game huddle. "We all we got!" she shouts, and the team responds, "We all we need!"
"I said it as a freshman," Sutton said, while wearing a jacket inscribed with "Moneyteam," the team's un-official nickname this season. "But all the older players were like, 'We're not saying that, that's corny.' I kept saying it, I kept writing it on my shoes, especially when Kelsey left. That's what I wanted to say - that 'We're fine, we're all we got.' It finally clicked this year."
A knee problem (slow recovery from minor offseason surgery) early in the year hindered Sutton's effectiveness, but a cortisone shot relieved the pain and she's been her usual fearless self since. Able to hit whatever shot is needed for motivation and a lift, Sutton is laying everything on the line in every minute of every game.
The team's other captain, Sutton and Newton were vital to encouraging the team to participate in summer workouts. It's paying off now.
"I felt like as players, we were learning how to win," Sutton said. "I give a lot of credit to the people that's been here before. We were always in close games, we could never get over the hump."
All after almost giving up.
"First year was just being homesick," Sutton said. "I questioned myself if I could really do this. The second year, it was more just ill will, behind-the-scenes stuff. It was kind of like motivating because the media was saying, 'An All-American leaving, what can you do without her?'
"I got a couple of people saying, 'We can't do this or that,' and we said, 'We're going to do it without her.' Her leaving was motivation for us to prove people wrong."
After Bone departed USC two years ago following an SEC Freshman of the Year season, many were wondering what was going on. Bone has never spoken publicly about it, and while Staley wouldn't go into specifics, she mentioned that her system was proven to produce winners, and some players don't see eye to eye about that.
"I don't like to keep bringing this up, but they've seen people come and leave this program - a lot of them," Staley said. "They stayed resilient, they stayed on-task, and they stayed believing in the coaching staff. It's easy to jump on board to doubt, to say this isn't working, 'She's too hard, she doesn't like me.'
"All those things can seep into a situation when you're dealing with some adversity, whereas this group, they all just said, 'We all we got, we all we need.'"
The Moment II
There's that phrase about inspiration coming from the oddest places. Bone's departure caused the chemistry to become stronger, and after the WNIT last year, it only grew.
Then came a strange phone call. Staley was caught wondering, but figured, whatever.
"I didn't know they liked boxing," Staley said. "I always get the fights at my house and they asked me if I could come over and watch, and I said sure."
The Gamecocks wanted to watch the big Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Victor Ortiz boxing match in September, so Staley invited them over. Throughout, USC was overjoyed at the flamboyant antics of Mayweather, who scored a fourth-round knockout when he gave Ortiz a quick one-two after apparently suckering him in for a forgiveness hug.
"I was talking to Ieasia," Sutton said, "saying that Mayweather has swag. I said, 'We need to play with a certain kind of swag. We need to get money, as in win games.'"
"Money" Mayweather inadvertently loaned out his nickname.
"After we watched Ortiz and Mayweather fight, we took on his attitude," Grant said. "How he trained, and how he carried himself, and I think we just bought into that mentality and I think it worked for us."
It's been quite a journey, but it isn't over yet. Today, as the five wave goodbye to the home crowd, they know it's really only the beginning.
After fighting for two years to get to the NCAA tournament - and to stay above water for those who were around for four or five years - the moment is upon them. Staley hopes that far into the future, she can look back at this group and say that it was the one that got the Gamecocks where she always knew they could be.
"All of them were a little different in that, you had some that I butted heads with, only because some of them had very strong personalities," Staley said. "You want that in kids. You want them to be strong. You want them to have their own perspective in things. You have to channel it so you can help them, not hurt them."
Some of the five said they would have some tears before today's tipoff. Some said they would wait to cry after the season. All said they were eager to get to the game, then get to the SEC tournament, then hear that glorious moment in a week when their name flashes on the TV screen.
It's been a long time coming.
"When you really think about what they've been through, it's great to see young people be successful," Staley said. "All of them are going to graduate, which is a great thing. For them to be able to deal with all the things that they've dealt with, and graduate, I think we need to really point out and highlight that big fact.
"I'm glad they stuck it out."
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