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October 28, 2011

Gamecocks take prediction to heart



BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Markeisha Grant, nicknamed "Grin" for her constantly smiling demeanor, frowned.

"It was actually in the middle of practice," South Carolina's senior guard said on Thursday, during her turn at SEC Media Day. "It was kind of an intense practice, and coach (Dawn) Staley just stopped practice and was like, 'Just going to throw this out there. You guys were picked eighth in the preseason media poll.'

"It was like the level of intensity just blew up. Everybody was making stops. The guys couldn't run any offense, they couldn't score, we just turned it up. We took it real personal."

The Gamecocks practice every day against a group of five college-age men. After Staley made the announcement, the men were left feeling beaten and bruised. And that was still two-and-a-half weeks before the season began.

Eighth? For a team that had improved every year under Staley and was poised to finally reap the benefit? For a team that was so tightly knit that their personalities were basically interchangeable?

Eighth?

"It gives us a lot of motivation to prove people wrong," Grant said, still not smiling. "Last year, we were picked seventh and we finished fifth. This year's team, we have a lot more chemistry. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."

Although Staley has had to weather the defections of some top recruits, she enters her fourth year with the Gamecocks with a veteran group. While the media pollsters - which only numbered 22 - may have looked at the media guide and saw that USC lost five players from last year, they didn't fully grasp what really went on.

Three of the five - Kayla Brewer, Samone Kennedy and Marah Strickland - were more or less gone from the team by midseason. The other two, seniors Jewel May and Valerie Nainima, were vital to the Gamecocks but weren't the leading scorers or defenders.

USC returns the point-heavy trio of Grant, La'Keisha Sutton and Ieasia Walker, plus posts Charenee Stephens and Ashley Bruner. Co-captain (with Sutton) Courtney Newton and Ebony Wilson provide valuable experience and production from the bench. The recruiting class featured rebounding machine Aleighsa Welch and 6-foot-3 Elle Ibiam.

The history of Staley's program has been of constant improvement, from 10 wins her first season to 14 to 18, plus 2-7-8 in SEC play and a WNIT berth last season. This is the year that the Gamecocks expect it to come together, perhaps earn a top-four berth in the league and get to that other tournament.

The media poll didn't see it. The Gamecocks clearly do.

"We've just got to take it. There's not anything we can do about it," Staley said, taking the high road. "But certainly the last couple of years, everybody's been wrong. We're hoping that that prediction was wrong."

Staley lined up a formidable non-conference schedule for her team, beginning the season at Illinois and traveling to Clemson, Xavier, NC State and Drexel (a game for Sutton, from nearby New Jersey). There is also a home game against Penn State, a neutral-site game (Myrtle Beach) with North Carolina and the standard SEC schedule.

It's part of her method. She wants to illustrate to the Gamecocks that the SEC is good, but the competition in the NCAA tournament is much better. She wants her team to have a tournament mentality whether it's in Game 1 or Game 30.

"The Final Four's going to be played on the road for everybody," Staley said. "We all strive to get there. The SEC tournament's played at a neutral site. I think you have to test yourself on the road. We had a head coaches' meeting where they brought in some (selection) committee members and the thing they told all of us was to go on the road and win some basketball games."

USC will be challenged, but outside of the newcomers to this year's team, has a tremendously experienced team to build around. The Gamecocks feel - know - that this is their year, even if some others don't.

"That's all right," Grant said. "It's extra motivation. We were fifth last year, when we know we should have finished higher. It's going to be a positive for us."

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