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February 9, 2012

Surging Gamecocks face red-hot Arkansas



NO. 24 SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (18-5, 7-3 SEC)
at
ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS (17-5, 6-4)

When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville, Ark.
TV: None
Tickets: Available at the box office
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Jr. (7.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg); G La'Keisha Sutton 5-8 Sr. (10.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G Markeisha Grant 5-6 Sr. (11.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 Jr. (7.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg); F Charenee Stephens 6-0 Sr. (4.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
Arkansas' probable starters: G Lyndsay Harris 5-9 Sr. (9.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg); G C'eira Ricketts 5-9 Sr. (10.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg); F Sarah Watkins 6-3 Jr. (10.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg); F Ashley Daniels 6-2 Sr. (7.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg); F Dominique Robinson 6-0 So. (7.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina takes a four-game winning streak back on the road for the second of three away games over the next five. … Grant is the reigning SEC Player of the Week and the USBWA National Player of the Week. … Bruner should start her third straight game as Courtney Newton has missed the last two games with a concussion. … USC has won seven SEC games for just the seventh time in its 21 years in the league. … The Gamecocks rank second in the country in points allowed (48.1). … Walker is averaging 5.5 assists over her past three games and hasn't committed a turnover. … Arkansas leads the series 16-8 but USC won the last one, and five of the final seven. … USC is back in the Top 25 for the second time this season.
Next up: South Carolina hosts Florida at 5 p.m. on Sunday.



Dawn Staley was concerned.

Her team had adopted a 24-hour rule for the season, but Staley knew that it was going to be severely challenged. After last week's groundbreaking 64-60 win at Tennessee was in the books, Staley got a little bit of a break due to having a bye week next.

But then that passed, and the next game - tonight, at an Arkansas team that is about as red-hot as USC - arrived. Staley trusted her team, especially its veterans, to truly put Tennessee behind it, but she knew it might be difficult, especially when Monday came around and South Carolina was the new No. 24 team in the country.

"We have to be able to be big girls and turn the page," Staley said on Wednesday. "Our preparation for this game wasn't great, but our players are trying to fight themselves out of it. I think that by the time we suit up we should be ready to go."

That the Gamecocks (18-5, 7-3 SEC) looked sluggish in practice added to the worry. Even in a three-game losing streak before the current four-game winning streak, USC had great practices. The way to prove that the Tennessee game was past was to keep having great practices, and the Gamecocks didn't.

But it's only a slight concern. The only true proof will be found tonight when the ball is tipped, and USC gets after it. Staley believes that her Gamecocks realize what is in front of them, and what they can do.

As their name continues to get mentioned in NCAA tournament predictions (ESPN's Charlie Creme had USC a fifth seed in his latest edition of Bracketology), USC is trying its best to remain focused on the present and not the future. The tournament is clearly there, but USC is not there yet.

The Gamecocks are realizing that they have a chance to make history, but they're trying to take care of a few other markers first. For instance, a win over Arkansas matches USC's longest SEC win streak in program history (five), moves the Gamecocks within two games of first place in the SEC (Kentucky is idle tonight), matches last season's SEC win total and improves over last season's overall win total by one, meaning Staley will have improved the overall record in each of her three seasons following the initial 10-win campaign.

The Razorbacks (17-5, 6-4) are on their own winning streak (six) and with the Gamecocks, the game is a battle of the top two defenses in the SEC. It may come down to who can score 40 points first, never mind 50.

USC's defense has been magnificent all year and its offense is gaining consistency. Markeisha Grant and La'Keisha Sutton are pacing the attack, while point guard Ieasia Walker has eliminated turnovers and raised her assists. Arkansas has its own scoring tandem of C'eira Ricketts and Sarah Watkins, but the entire starting five averages at least seven points per game.

"Just been working on us, and what we do best -- defense of course," Grant said. "We have to contain their guards. I think it's going to be how we defend their guard play, whether or not we win or lose."

USC has been winning, and has won a couple that it wasn't picked to win. Now to keep doing so - Arkansas is tough, but it's not Tennessee.

But that's the kind of thinking that Staley would want to avoid.

"I think it gave us a really big boost," Grant said. "Of course it was one of the biggest things that South Carolina has seen for a while, in women's basketball. I think we're going to build on that."

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