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February 24, 2012

Inspired



Courtney Newton's South Carolina career has covered 150 games, with at least three left to play.

The fifth-year senior, due to rampant injuries requiring three surgeries, has played in 87.

Which is OK. While Newton certainly doesn't appreciate all the time she spent on the bench, in doctors' offices or in rehabilitation, she figured it was all leading to something.

The "something" is this year. The Gamecocks are 20-8 going into Sunday's regular-season finale, with an NCAA tournament berth thought to be all but locked up. After four years of hoping to play in the game's biggest event, and coming close in three only to see the dream crumple and die each time, it appears that Newton will finally get her wish in her last try. If she'd have played in more of those 150 games over the past four years, she wouldn't be around for this one.

And after having two chances to quit, to hang 'em up and realize that great college careers aren't for everybody, and choosing to return each time despite the overwhelming evidence that she probably wasn't going to be a factor, Newton has seen it come full-circle.

She's here, about to play in the event she grew up watching and wishing she was a part of. After all of the tears, the prayers, the pain and the grueling test of her belief that she was always meant to be on that stage, it's almost here.

Yes, good things do come to those who wait.

"I've just learned so much about myself and just who I am, and being able to go through the ups and downs," Newton said as the final week of her final regular season was about to begin. "I definitely look back and know I wouldn't be the person I am today or who I will be in the future without this experience.

"(The doctor in my last surgery), he didn't have to do the whole reconstruct my knee. He could have just fixed whatever and I could have been a normal person and been fine.

"But I wasn't going to give up."

It's funny that Newton used the phrase "normal person" when describing the route she took to finish her college days. It does bring to mind the separation between a student and a student-athlete, but also the gap between a student-athlete and a student-athlete who finishes their career pain-free. Most, if not all, will have some kind of bang-up over the course of four or five years, but to see and hear Newton describe her litany of ailments, one gets the idea that her medical file overflows one manila folder and enters another.

While going down the list, Newton rolled her pant legs up so she could look at the scars and offer a visual, and accurate, depiction. They all run together after a while, much like the scars and holes that cover both of her knees blend into a nightmare of a Rorshach picture.

"My junior year of high school was my right ACL," Newton says, pointing to the scar. "Then my freshman year of college was my left ACL. Then my (redshirt) sophomore year was my right ACL again, and I had to get two surgeries, one for that and one to fix my hip."

Everybody got that?

Five games in 2007-08. Out the first two games of 2008-09 while recuperating. Missed the first three games of 2009-10, played in three games, then went down in practice with the third ACL tear.

That was the one that really stung. After going it through it so recently, Newton was rather gung-ho about getting it fixed and returning. Six months? No problem, see you in the morning.

"It wasn't until the day of the surgery that I learned he was coming in doing the hip, all this stuff," Newton said. "After that first surgery with the hip, I struggled just because, I think that was the toughest, physically, that I had ever been that down. I didn't have an ACL, I didn't have a hip, hardly. I was like, 'What is going on?'"

Sitting at home in Flowery Branch, Ga., watching her teammates via the computer and radio, Newton was healing but didn't know if she would ever get back. She knew, much like the sympathetic supporters around the program, that she would certainly be welcomed back, but there probably wasn't going to be much of a chance of her playing again. Coach Dawn Staley, the second coach of Newton's college career, was building something and while Newton could provide leadership, there would be bigger, stronger and most of all, healthier, players in front of her.

Coach and player sat down and Staley explained the situation that Newton knew, but didn't want to face. Plenty of athletes had come to college, suffered a bad injury and taken a medical redshirt. The scholarship was still good, but if taken, the player can't play again.

Ever.

"It was offered," Newton said. "I remember having that conversation with coach, more so about once I got through that second surgery. I knew I was going to come back. I told myself, 'I wouldn't have done all this if I wasn't going to play.' I really didn't think about it any more."

Staley wasn't going to be a bottom-line business-oriented coach to somebody who wanted to play so badly. Newton missed the first game of 2010-11, but went in for four minutes against Illinois in the next game. That became one minute against Clemson, five at Penn State, 11 at Stanford.

Then, on Jan. 16, Newton was a starter. So excited that she was about to burst through the roof of Ole Miss' Tad Smith Coliseum, Newton scored six points on two 3-pointers, her first points in five games and one more point than she'd scored in her 15 previous games combined.

"It was just a great feeling for me, just because I worked so hard," she said. "It's been a great feeling and it's rewarding for me, knowing that I chose to keep playing."

Newton has been a constant in the starting lineup since, finishing last season with 16 straight starts and being part of another WNIT team (Newton's first team, under coach Susan Walvius, also made the WNIT with Newton rehabbing her second ACL injury). With her psychology degree in hand, Newton could have moved on, but had another meeting with Staley.

"That conversation with coach Staley was a short one," Newton said. "It was, 'You gonna play or not?' I was gonna play."

Of course she was. Newton hasn't scored a lot this year - her three points at Alabama were her first of the SEC season and part of a mere 14 on the season - but she has started 23 of 28 games, despite a recent concussion that cost her two more games. But with the creaky knees, with the wraps and tape that come with them, with her rebuilt hip and with a sometimes-achy head, Newton is still out there, setting picks and jostling for position for rebounds.

"She's an inspiration," fellow senior Ebony Wilson said. "You look at her, you think, 'She can do it, I can do it.' You're tired, you got a nagging injury, you got to think about all she's been through. She still comes out and competes and plays."

Teams reflect their captains, and with Newton and the gritty La'Keisha Sutton this year's representatives, it's no surprise that the Gamecocks have set themselves up in their position. The epic win over Tennessee was the only example needed of USC's resolve to finally get where Staley promised that they would be.

Helping lead that charge is Newton, a starter who "will stick her face into anything" on defense, as Staley says, and whose presence at the 3-point line is at least a forceful consideration for the opponent. Just ask Georgia, which watched Newton bomb five 3-pointers among 16 points in a USC win last year.

After coming in as a heralded recruit and playing point guard her first year, Newton has settled into her role as defense-first, very-occasional shooter. "I know that I bring a little different thing to the game," Newton said. "A little more leadership and holding our team together. (Staley) definitely could have put someone else in there who brings more offensive power."

Not that there aren't times when she regresses and is tempted to try and be what she once was.

"I'm mad at her for this, still," Newton said. "In the Alabama game, I got a steal on the wing. (Staley) said my eyes got real big because I always tell her, 'Back in high school, I would just go down the court, make all these moves.'

"I told her in the Alabama game, I about took off for a breakaway layup, then I thought, 'That's stupid, the girl's nine times faster than me.' So I just stopped and passed and I was like, 'Coach, I was gonna go get me one.' She was like, 'I woulda called a timeout in the middle of your layup.'"

"That girl was a hooper," said teammate Charenee Stephens, also a teammate of Newton when the two won a 2007 AAU national championship together. "She could flat hoop. Courtney has the spirit that's unmatched. She's one of those people that I would go to battle with. She never complains. When she was down, and she had nothing, she stuck around."

Newton also chose to stay when three members of her six-player recruiting class were gone after her first season. A fourth, Samone Kennedy, was dismissed from the team in the middle of last season and the fifth, Jewel May, graduated last year.

What else would she do? In practice, there's Newton's "little red jersey," as she calls it, signifying no-contact among the white and black togs of her teammates. "We've had to take it different than we have in the past," she said. "I can't go out here and be all reckless, and coach watches my minutes. But it's worked out well for me."

Teams are often led by their high-scorers or high-rebounders, the ones who make the dazzling plays. This one gets a chunk of its leadership from the player who won't take off on a fast break and bypasses an open look for a pass to a teammate.

"I think she has to have the strongest mental aspect of the game, just because she's had so many surgeries and she's fought her way to be just playing," said leading scorer Markeisha Grant. "And she decided to come back this year when she didn't have to. She's a role model, I really think she is."

"I'm glad that (Staley) gave me that opportunity," Newton said. "I think that my role is more of a role player. I'm glad I had that opportunity to do that. I'm just glad every day to play.

"It's been a journey, a life-growing experience."

The biggest challenge facing this year's team was finishing. The last two USC teams have been right on the cusp of nabbing an NCAA berth, but have wilted down the stretch and missed.

This time around, USC has the NCAAs penciled in and almost chiseled in stone. The Gamecocks' attitude seems to be, "We're not going to quit. Not after she didn't."

No question who they're referring to.

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