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February 26, 2012

WBB: USC wins on Senior Day; NCAAs assured

VIDEO: Senior Day

VIDEO: Dawn Staley

VIDEO: La'Keisha Sutton, Ashley Bruner

South Carolina stayed in the game, but never could get the tying basket. The Gamecocks were always two points behind, then four or six behind as Arkansas was too fast, too strong to handle.

La'Keisha Sutton, being honored with four others for their contributions as seniors, had seen enough.

"It was actually a broken play. The ball was supposed to go inside," Sutton said. "I just tried to make something happen."

Sutton's jump shot from the top of the key finally tied Sunday's regular-season finale at 42, and Ieasia Walker's rebound and ensuing coast-to-coast layup gave the Gamecocks a lead they wouldn't lose as USC rallied past the Razorbacks 53-47. The five seniors went out on a high note as USC finished the regular season 21-8, 10-6 SEC, tying the program's high in conference wins and giving coach Dawn Staley another year of improvement, her third straight in three tries.

More importantly, while there is still the SEC tournament to play, USC is almost chiseled into a long-awaited NCAA tournament berth. The Gamecocks will finish the SEC tournament with at least 21 wins and single-digit losses, and after beating North Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt (twice), Arkansas and boasting an 8-5 road record, the NCAAs are almost assured.

Staley spoke to the Colonial Life Arena crowd afterward as if it was definite, thanking the fans for their support and encouraging another round of applause for her seniors. Sutton, Markeisha Grant, Ebony Wilson, Charenee Stephens and Courtney Newton have been in Columbia for the struggles, and have seen them pay off this year.

"These seniors have been through a 10-18 season," Staley said, referencing her first year, "and it didn't feel good. It took us committing to one another, committing to being a student-athlete in its totality. It all has to work together. These seniors, whatever they were going through … they've matured and they've put themselves in a position to take this program to another level since I've been here."

It was fitting that the seniors would lead it, despite Grant, the Gamecocks' leading scorer, ending with one point. But her free throw was the final point of the game.

Sutton led the team with 16 points, keeping USC afloat in the first half as Arkansas relentlessly drove the paint behind C'eira Ricketts and got jump shots from everywhere. Junior Ashley Bruner muscled her way to 15 points, hauling in six offensive rebounds and putting them back in the hole.

Stephens had eight points and 11 boards, plus a huge block of Ricketts late that preserved a five-point lead. Wilson, making her first start of the season, had an assist and a rebound in 11 minutes and Newton scored five points on a 3-pointer and then a putback of her own miss.

Walker woke up after a turnover-plagued first half to score eight points with six rebounds. Her layup gave USC a 44-42 lead and while the Razorbacks (21-7, 10-6) got within one point twice in the final minutes, escalating foul trouble and USC locking down on defense prevented a sour end to Senior Day.

Bruner and Stephens led the way down the stretch, until Grant was fouled and made the front end of her 1-and-1. Her only point was enough to send the CLA fans into a tizzy, and a warm embrace for the players as Bruner danced and dribbled the final seconds off the clock.

Now for the next step.

"Our resume speaks for itself," Staley said. "We've put ourselves in position to be talked about."

"It's exciting, but we have the SEC tournament to get through first," Bruner said.

The Gamecocks will either be the fifth or sixth seed in the tournament, despite them finishing tied for fourth in the league. They will play either Alabama or Ole Miss, who they are a combined 3-0 against this year.

It's been a long time coming, especially after being so close the past two years. USC doesn't have to go into the SEC tournament trying to win a game or two to improve its record - it should be solid either way.

Not that that will deter the Gamecocks from trying to win it.

"I'm honestly thinking about the SEC tournament first," Sutton said.

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