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March 2, 2011

WBB: Gamecocks Prepare For SEC Tournament

Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.
Game 1 -- (9) Arkansas vs. (8) Florida, 1 p.m.
Game 2 -- (7) LSU vs. (10) Alabama, 3:30 p.m.
Game 3 -- (5) South Carolina vs. (12) Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m.
Game 4 -- (6) Auburn vs. (11) Mississippi State, 10 p.m.
Game 5 -- Game 1 winner vs. (1) Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Game 6 -- Game 2 winner vs. (2) Kentucky, 3:30 p.m.
Game 7 -- Game 3 winner vs. (4) Georgia, 7:30 p.m.
Game 8 -- Game 4 winner vs. (3) Vanderbilt, 10 p.m.
Game 9 -- Semifinal, 4 p.m.
Game 10 -- Semifinal, 6:30 p.m.
Championship -- 5:30 p.m.

(12) OLE MISS REBELS (10-18)

What: SEC tournament, Game 3
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.
Tickets: Available at the box office
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 So. (12.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg); G La'Keisha Sutton 5-9 Jr. (10.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Valerie Nainima 5-5 Sr. (6.8 ppg, 1.6 rpg); G Courtney Newton 5-10 Jr. (2.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg); F Jewel May 6-1 Sr. (3.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg)
Ole Miss' probable starters: G Valencia McFarland 5-4 Fr. (13.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg); G Kayla Melson 5-8 Sr. (15.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg); G Kenyotta Jenkins 5-10 Fr. (3.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg); F Courtney Marbra 6-1 So. (4.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg); F Nikki Byrd 6-4 Jr. (7.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina begins the SEC tournament needing to stick around for a while to increase its NCAA tournament chances. ... A rematch of last year's first-round game, which the Rebels won 64-63 to end the Gamecocks' season. ... Melson and Walker each made the All-SEC second team, while McFarland made SEC All-Freshman. ... USC has not won an SEC tournament game since 2007, and has never made it past the second round. ... The sixth tournament matchup between the two teams, by far the opponent the Gamecocks have faced the most often. USC is 1-4 in five games against the Rebels. ... The Gamecocks have their highest tournament seed since 2003. ... USC finished 8-8 in the SEC while Ole Miss finished 3-13.
Next game: The winner advances to play (4) Georgia at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

The lifeline has slowed from a steady pulse to a barely flickering blip.

But it is still there.

"Everybody should be thinking about the tournament. I am," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said on Tuesday. "(Now,) I'm not going to put that pressure on our team. But certainly, we still have life."

The Gamecocks were still clinging to fading hopes for the NCAA tournament as they got back to practice this week, with nothing they could do to improve them until Thursday. Once Thursday comes, USC (16-13) can begin the process of trying to once more turn that flicker into a steady beat.

All the Gamecocks have to do is win.

"Our body of work speaks for itself," Staley said. "I think we have to continue to win basketball games. This may not be a bad thing, to play on Thursday night, because we get an opportunity to sweeten our resume."

USC begins the SEC tournament on Thursday with a first-round game against Ole Miss, knowing the road ahead. Staley believes if the Gamecocks get to 18 wins -- i.e., win on Thursday and Friday -- USC will once again be on solid footing for the NCAA tournament, and with two wins past, may be confident enough to stick around, win two more and remove all doubt.

That would be an extremely impressive run, considering that Tennessee, undefeated in the SEC this year, would probably be USC's semifinal opponent. If the Gamecocks do beat Ole Miss and then top Georgia on Friday, they'll have 18 -- if Tennessee beats its first opponent and then falls to USC on Saturday, that would be 19 and one heck of a quality win.

Then, of course, the Gamecocks would be playing Sunday for the SEC title and the automatic bid to the NCAAs that goes with it, which would be quite a feat in itself. Since USC joined the league in 1992, it has only gotten to the second round of the tournament four times, with one of those being due to a first-round bye. The Gamecocks have never gotten to the semifinals.

It's why the last act of practice on Tuesday was Staley asking her players to forget the grind of a 29-game season and be there for each other. Forget the fatigue and tiredness, just pick each other up.

"I think we are just feeling a little residual effect from losing our last two regular-season games in overtime, games in which we had a lead," Staley said. "We've got to rally the troops and find a way to bust up some confidence to get the first win on Thursday."

Playing the Rebels should help -- USC beat Ole Miss in overtime on the road on Jan. 16, the only game the two played this year. Since then, the Gamecocks finished the season with a solid spurt while the Rebels slipped into the SEC cellar.

The Gamecocks are working on finishing -- they blew the last two games due to not hitting enough free throws and layups at crucial times, despite several opportunities. With the three-guard lineup of Ieasia Walker, La'Keisha Sutton and Markeisha Grant/Valerie Nainima leading the charge, USC has found its niche -- but it has to re-discover what led to seven wins in 10 games before the final two.

"We've just got to stay focused, listen to coach and stick to the game plan," said Walker, named a second-team All-SEC selection on Tuesday. "Just be calm and play our game."

The latest edition of ESPN's Charlie Creme's "Bracketology" has the Gamecocks as one of the first four teams out. USC's chances, once solid, are now a long shot.

But they are still alive.

"We've got to find a way," Staley said. "We've got to find a way. It's this feeling, that fused me. We've got to figure out a game plan to beat Mississippi, and we'll do that."

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