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February 4, 2012

WBB: USC arrives after UT win

VIDEO: Dawn Staley, La'Keisha Sutton
Dawn and La'Keisha:

A day later, the smiles were still there.

It was expected - South Carolina has embraced the 24-hour rule all season. Twenty-four hours to celebrate a win, or mourn a loss. Since it was only 3 p.m. the day after a 7 p.m. tipoff, it was clearly within the window.

Although this one, with a week off to prepare for the next game, might slightly go over the 24 hours.

"Maybe after today we can start thinking about Arkansas," senior captain La'Keisha Sutton said, unable to stifle her grin and sporting a shirt with the simple slogan, "I Believe."

The Gamecocks claimed the win they and 32 others years' worth of Gamecocks had desired on Thursday with a 64-60 win at No. 8 Tennessee, breaking a sour streak of futility that kept looking more and more impossible to snap as the seasons progressed. USC had not beaten the Lady Volunteers since 1980, a streak of 40 straight games, had just the one win in the series to its credit and although it had managed to pull a few Top 25 upsets under fourth-year coach Dawn Staley, it still didn't have the Top-10 one that would really make the country take notice.

The Gamecocks got it all on Thursday, toppling Tennessee to give Staley the biggest upset of her head coaching career and keeping themselves in third place in the SEC with six games to go, just a half-game behind the second-place Vols and three games behind first-place Kentucky. Down seven points with just under five minutes to play, the Gamecocks went on a 9-0 run to close the game, capped by Sutton with a rebound and the two free throws that locked the result.

"I thought about coach (Lisa) Boyer, because she emphasizes making free throws in practice," Sutton said. "The night before, I was telling Elem (Ibiam), 'Whether we're going to win or lose, it's going to come down to me. Whether it's making a free throw or throwing the ball inbounds.'"

Sutton aced the second free throw for a four-point lead and USC knew it had it. The celebration, featuring a hug from athletic director Eric Hyman, a Gatorade bath that wasn't and Staley's staff congratulating its general, was the start of the 24-hour party that just may creep into the 27th or 31st hour.

"I didn't want to read all of it," Staley said, mentioning USC's history with UT before the game. "But that's something special."

Now comes the other part of it - can USC realize the win was magnificent, but put it in its proper place and concentrate on finishing the season strong? With only six games to go, the Gamecocks (18-5, 7-3 SEC) are looking fine for an NCAA tournament berth, but Staley has seen the last two Februarys evaporate into clouds of what could have been.

The Gamecocks have until Thursday to prepare for Arkansas, a team they will see again in the regular-season finale. Only one game of the final six - at Alabama (0-9 SEC) can be considered a gimme - with the others toss-ups.

Now that USC beat Tennessee on its home court, there might be outside expectations to beat everybody not named Tennessee (or this year, Kentucky). But the Gamecocks can't think like that.

"I would hope we don't think this is the pinnacle of our season, which it isn't," Staley said. "Our ultimate goal is to get to the NCAA tournament, and hopefully win some games in the tournament."

Staley went on to say that she hopes the Tennessee win is remembered, but not necessarily as one brief moment. She would like it to perhaps be the start of a journey that ends in the one prize that eluded her in a star-studded playing career - a national championship.

Staley's cell phone blew up with text messages and voicemails from former players afterward, and she appreciated it. Those were the players that helped start the process, one that has improved its win total every year (the win tied last year's win total, and the Gamecocks are one SEC win from tying last year's total).

"We wanted to win against Tennessee, like we have the past four years," Staley said. "We keep moving on."

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