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February 28, 2012

WBB: Strong finish propels Gamecocks

Thursday-Sunday * Bridgestone Arena * Nashville, Tenn.
Game 1 -- (8) Florida vs. (9) Auburn, 1 p.m. (FSN)
Game 2 -- (7) Vanderbilt vs. (10) Mississippi State, 3:30 p.m. (FSN)
Game 3 -- (5) Arkansas vs. (12) Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m. (FSN)
Game 4 -- (6) South Carolina vs. (11) Alabama, 10 p.m. (FSN)
Game 5 -- Game 1 winner vs. (1) Kentucky, 1 p.m. (FSN)
Game 6 -- Game 2 winner vs. (2) Tennessee, 3:30 p.m. (FSN)
Game 7 -- Game 3 winner vs. (4) LSU, 7:30 p.m. (FSN)
Game 8 -- Game 4 winner vs. (3) Georgia, 10 p.m. (FSN)
Game 9 -- Game 5 winner vs. Game 7 winner, 4 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 10 -- Game 6 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 6 p.m. (ESPNU)
Championship -- Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)

In each of its past two seasons, South Carolina knew it had to win down the stretch in order to make the NCAA tournament. There was small room for error, and when one loss became two, the Gamecocks fell out of contention.

This year, with a hefty record, great RPI and solid "goods" in the other tournament criteria, No. 25 USC could have mailed in the final few games of the season since the NCAA was a lock.

That they won anyway was more evidence of how this team built and grew into what it is today - a 21-8 squad eager for another chance to play and show how good it is. The Gamecocks weren't talking a whole lot about the NCAA tournament on Sunday after they finished their regular season by beating Arkansas - they just wanted to get to this week's SEC tournament.

USC has historically been awful in the SEC women's tournament, having won four games in 20 years. Yet, despite knowing they don't have to play well there, the Gamecocks were gung-ho about getting to Nashville and playing on Thursday.

"It's exciting just to think about it, but we have this SEC tournament to get through first," forward Ashley Bruner said.

The Gamecocks will tip off at 10 p.m. on Thursday against Alabama, a team they whipped twice this year, in the first round of the tournament. A win sends them to face Georgia the next night.

USC is in the NCAA tournament, ranking as a No. 5 seed in Charlie Creme's latest edition of "Bracketology" and playing No. 12 North Carolina on its home court in the projection. Win or lose in Nashville, the Gamecocks shouldn't fall too far off that No. 5 forecast.

But the Gamecocks, adopting "The Time Is Now" among other phrases for this season, see no need to be complacent. They want to be playing their best going into the NCAAs, and playing games against the round of heavyweights they've had to face for the past 16 games is an ideal warm-up.

"I've always wanted to show that there are more teams out there than just the SEC," coach Dawn Staley said in the preseason. "That's why we play North Carolina and Xavier and NC State and Penn State. I want them to be ready for when we get into the NCAA tournament and we're not having to face Kentucky or Georgia or Tennessee."

Staley figures that the competition from non-SEC members will be less stiff than the 16-game gauntlet that her team has to run every season. That's not discounting the toughness of an NCAA tournament opponent, but the teams of the SEC throw so much at the Gamecocks that she figures the other teams that they may face won't be anywhere near as difficult.

There is the experience factor of constant tournament teams (like one predicted opponent, North Carolina) compared to the zero experience that USC has in the big dance, but Staley knows that her team has faced so much already that the experience may be negated. Her team is filled with fighters, scrappers that busted their tails to be here, and she thinks that intensity will stay through the SEC tournament, then a long week to Selection Monday, then another long week until the first NCAA tournament game.

Perhaps the lengthy wait or perhaps not wanting to jinx anything has caused the Gamecocks to stay grounded. Nothing good can come from looking to far ahead.

"I'm honestly thinking about the SEC tournament first," La'Keisha Sutton said, "and from there we'll take it forward to the NCAA tournament."

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