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January 20, 2012

WBB: Third straight loss could linger

Now comes the hard part.

South Carolina has prided itself on its team chemistry and togetherness all year. It served the Gamecocks well, as they won 11 non-conference games, then stormed to a 3-0 start in the SEC.

When they lost two straight games, to LSU and Kentucky, there wasn't any panic. They were good teams, USC turned the ball over too much, it happens. They were teaching moments.

Now, though, USC has lost its third straight game, falling 53-49 to Auburn on Thursday. The Gamecocks couldn't find a basket, shooting under 30 percent for the game, and their hallmark, sticky defense, was gashed over and over by the worst-scoring team in the conference.

Needing a win to re-set the course of what was looking to be an NCAA tournament berth, the Gamecocks didn't get one. Now they have to try and do it against No. 25 Vanderbilt on Sunday, a team they have beaten before but they will have to try and do it again on the road.

The "Money Team" is in serious need of a deposit in the win column.

It's beginning to mimic each of the past two years under coach Dawn Staley, with one difference. In each of the past two seasons, USC weathered a tough non-conference record to be in position to make a run at the NCAA tournament. Neither happened after a few too many losses at the end of the season, but USC was right there.

This year, USC set itself up to be a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament, as long as it held court in conference play. The Gamecocks were doing that, but after three straight losses, sit at .500.

Now, a 14-5 record isn't going to drop them off the radar. There would have to be substantially more losses for that to happen.

But with Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Georgia and another game with Kentucky representing four of the Gamecocks' final 10 games, the time to snap a losing streak is now before it gets any longer. USC has scaled the mountain so far this season, but is now learning what it's like on top - there is always a higher peak to climb, and the trip down gets longer and more difficult to stop.

The Gamecocks' defense was broken at Auburn by the Tigers running through the half-court trap and exploiting wide-open layups. That can be solved. What may prove more problematic is the offense.

USC has been fine with scoring all year, but the Gamecocks' greatest offensive gift is improvisation. There are so many weapons that teams are hard-pressed to stop any of them, since the others can start firing at any time.

One of the only real set plays USC had was to find Markeisha Grant on the wing on the first possession and let her fire a 3-pointer. The rest would be La'Keisha Sutton driving or hitting a jumper, Ieasia Walker smoking a 3, Aleighsa Welch hitting a stick-back or passes into the post for Ashley Bruner and Charenee Stephens.

What Auburn did was use its height - it leads the SEC in blocked shots - to hinder USC's outside shooters, and then relied on interior defense. It seemed to be an evenly fought battle between the Gamecocks' posts getting their put-backs or shots blocked, or USC just missing - several chip shots simply didn't fall.

Sometimes, when a team isn't hitting, it's just not hitting and there's nothing to be done. Staley tried every lineup combination she could think of and nothing worked. The question is, can it be chalked up to just one of those nights or was it telegraphing how to stop USC?

The Gamecocks have a short turnaround before their game on Sunday. Answers may be in short supply in limited practice time.

Either way, when the game begins, USC will be forced to answer.

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