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October 4, 2011

Practice begins for hopeful great season



It was the first day of 40 in the preseason. Then there are a full four months (at least) before the season is over.

Yet it was tough for South Carolina's women's basketball team not to feel excited and enthusiastic on Monday.

"It's a great feeling," senior and team captain La'Keisha Sutton said. "I'm excited about this season. Ever since last season ended, just been looking forward to it."

The Gamecocks haven't been quiet in the preseason, talking up their coming season on their social media outlets. It hasn't been boastful; it's been eagerness to get on the floor and begin the year.

No one can blame them for feeling like that. This is the year that coach Dawn Staley has been waiting on since she took the job. She knew it would take time to build a program at USC and had to weather some defections that could have potentially crippled her project, yet managed to ride through them and stands on the brink of what could be a fantastic year.

"I think this is probably the tightest team, as far as chemistry," Staley said. "But we also know, this is a very innocent time of the season for us. There are no starters, no playing time, no games on the horizon.

"The good thing is we are building a good strong team chemistry, so when it's time to put that starting lineup on the floor, our six-seven-eight player off the bench, it's during those times that we build the love and trust the coaches and trust the players that are out there on the floor."

Staley has improved her win total every year, both overall and in the SEC. Her past two teams entered late January/February with solid shots to make the NCAA tournament, before falling a win or two short. She lost a program-changing recruit, Kelsey Bone, before last season and then saw her leading scorer go down with a knee injury in the preseason, but still had her first winning season and postseason berth while at USC.

Now, with a solid core of veterans to build around and six newcomers, the Gamecocks are looking to make some noise this year. It won't be easy - Staley has lined up a nasty non-conference schedule for her team, many of the biggest games on the road - but as Staley has said, it's not supposed to be easy.

She has tried since Day 1 to illustrate to her team that the SEC is a very strong league, but it will face much more difficult competition in the NCAA tournament. While Staley may have known that her first two teams wouldn't have great chances to get there, the system was designed so that when the team got the necessary experience, it would get to the tournament and stick around for a while.

The Gamecocks won their first game in the SEC tournament since 2003 last year, made the WNIT, won their opener and lost their second game. They finished 18-15, disappointed that they were close to the NCAAs - USC lost its final two regular-season games, each in overtime, after winning six of eight before them - but ready for the next year to arrive.

It's here. The three-guard trio of Sutton, Ieasia Walker and Markeisha Grant is back to direct the offense. Posts Ashley Bruner and Charenee Stephens will have some help to aid them this season. Courtney Newton, Ebony Wilson and Imani Sellers return as well. Add a recruiting class that includes Staley's first home-grown recruit, Goose Creek's Aleighsa Welch, and 6-foot-3 forward Elem Ibiam, and USC has depth, talent, experience and room to grow.

"We're already feeling a bit of pressure," said Newton, the sixth-year senior. "We want to be a championship team."

Sutton and the other upperclassmen have instituted a simple buddy system with the freshmen, using constant text messages and including them in upperclassmen activities to make them feel welcome. Two of the six newcomers are juniors, one a junior-college transfer and the other, Pamela Decheva, an import from Bulgaria. The others are freshmen, who will be expected to learn as much as possible this year, so they can capably replace the five seniors on this year's squad.

Staley was quick to point out, again, that there are no games or playing time to be discussed yet, which could affect some chemistry down the line. But the close-knit camaraderie already evident, even when it was just individual non-supervised workouts, has her believing that there won't be a problem with that.

Now it's just finding out if the talent on hand can deliver what is shaping up to be her best season yet.

"In any team or any corporation, you've got to have some chiefs and you've got to have some increments, and both of them are playing their part right now," Staley said. "I think that's probably the reason why are chemistry is so good at this point."

NOTE: Walker sat out of practice with an abdominal injury, but Staley said it's nothing that should keep her out for too long.

2011-12 SOUTH CAROLINA WOMEN'S BASKETBALL
G La'Keisha Sutton, Sr.
G Ieasia Walker, Jr.
G Markeisha Grant, Sr.
G Courtney Newton, Sr.
F Ashley Bruner, Jr.
F Charenee Stephens, Sr.
G Ebony Wilson, Sr.
G Imani Sellers, Jr.
G Sancheon White, Jr.
F Pamela Decheva, Jr.
F Elem Ibiam, Fr.
F Aleighsa Welch, Fr.
G Tina Roy, Fr.
G Shelbretta Ball, Fr.

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