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January 26, 2012

WBB: Sutton, Grant roll Rebels



The most intriguing factor about Dawn Staley's fourth team at South Carolina has been that it has so many players who can score, a pick-your-poison type of offense. The Gamecocks won early in the season by focusing on their post players, a surprise considering the team returned the three-guard trio that anchored the stretch run last year.

The guards were still there, though. They were just waiting for their moment.

It's here.

La'Keisha Sutton and Markeisha Grant scored a combined 37 points on Thursday, leading the Gamecocks' 61-43 roll past Ole Miss. Sutton was scorching in the game's first 10 minutes, scoring 14 points including four 3-pointers, and Grant picked it up from there by notching 20 as Sutton cooled to a mere three additional points.

It was plenty to sweep past the Rebels, who cut a 19-point halftime lead to eight within the first seven minutes of the second half, but were then undone by Grant scoring five straight points. A late injury to leading scorer Valencia McFarland, and a re-commitment to defense, allowed USC to cruise home.

It was the second straight strong game for the two guards, who had combined for 30 points in an overtime win over Vanderbilt to break a three-game losing streak. As Staley said, it's how the ball is bouncing right now - the guards can win the game, and are proving it.

"We're capable, from an offensive standpoint, of doing that," Staley said. "Our kids just have to be confident."

Sutton set the pace early and the Gamecocks rolled to a massive first-half lead, as her confidence was clearly displayed. She stroked her first four 3-point attempts, and USC used the momentum to go 9-for-18 for the night.

"It was one of those nights," Sutton said. "My team knows I'm a streaky shooter, and they got the ball to me."

With a 19-point halftime lead, Staley stressed that the Rebels (12-9, 2-6 SEC) had a run in them, and then sat back and watched it happen. Ole Miss made its first six shots out of the break, led by McFarland, who went from two first-half points to 12 almost immediately.

Staley didn't call timeout, wanting her team to handle it on its own, and then watched Grant take control. Every time Ole Miss got close, Grant was there to bury a big shot - her 3-pointer with 12:24 to go pushed an eight-point lead to 11 and USC hardly had to sweat thereafter.

McFarland left at the 8:19 mark, her right leg cramping so badly that USC Director of Player Development Freddy Ready scooped her up and carried her to the Ole Miss bench, and the Gamecocks took advantage. An 11-point lead became 17, keyed by Sancheon White, Aleighsa Welch and Grant, and by the time McFarland came back in, the game was too far gone.

Staley was able to empty her bench and enjoy the ride. At 5-3 at the SEC's midpoint, USC (16-5) is in prime position to make a run at the prize that has eluded it the past two seasons.

"We're just taking it one game at a time," Grant said. "The key is staying together and staying healthy."

USC is right there, with some high-profile wins, a solid RPI and strength of schedule and the record to go with it. The Gamecocks, hamstrung by early-season losses in each of the past two years, had to have a lot go right to make the NCAA tournament in each of the past two years. Not enough did.

This year, they have to have a lot go wrong to miss it.

But they're not thinking about it.

"We just had to get back to the way we're used to playing," Staley said. "We didn't do that in those three losses."

NOTES: Senior Courtney Newton took an elbow to the head late in the first half and was taken directly to the locker room. USC officials said it was a precautionary measure, and Newton did return to sit on the bench late in the game. She is day-to-day for Sunday's game hosting Mississippi State. Newton had two rebounds and two steals in seven minutes. … Freshman Pamela Decheva was back on the bench after missing the Vanderbilt game due to illness. Decheva entered the game in the final minute.

SEC STANDINGS
Team SEC Overall
Kentucky 8-0 19-2
Tennessee 5-1 14-5
Georgia 5-2 16-4
South Carolina 5-3 16-5
LSU 4-3 14-6
Arkansas 4-4 15-5
Florida 3-4 13-7
Mississippi State 3-4 13-7
Vanderbilt 2-4 14-5
Auburn 2-6 10-11
Ole Miss 2-6 12-9
Alabama 0-6 10-10
Thursday's games
Kentucky 66, Auburn 48
Arkansas 51, Mississippi State 35
South Carolina 61, Ole Miss 43
Georgia at Vanderbilt
Tennessee at Alabama

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