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March 19, 2012

WBB: Too Sweet!



Gamecocks headed to round of 16 after upset of Purdue

VIDEO: Ieasia Walker


VIDEO: La'Keisha Sutton


VIDEO: Post-game
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The giant interlocking "SC" on Dawn Staley's practice T-shirt naturally stands for "South Carolina."

Next weekend, it could stand for Staley and her Gamecocks' next destination - Southern California, for the Sweet 16.

"The Money Team" stunned 13th-ranked Purdue 72-61 on Monday on the fourth-seed Boilermakers' home court, earning Staley's first trip to the round of 16 and USC's first since 2001-02. The fifth-seed and 25th-ranked Gamecocks will play the Fresno Region's top seed, No. 2 Stanford, at a time to be determined on Saturday in Fresno, Calif.

"The Time is Now," indeed. USC refused to be intimidated by Purdue's sizable height advantage and 3-point shooting prowess, unleashing its nasty swarming defense on the Boilermakers and ending their season.

And the Gamecocks, who to a player say they love to dance, will keep on dancing.

"I saw a lot in this team that I loved, and I knew that we could be a great team, and we're just going on and we're proving it practice by practice, game by game," freshman Aleighsa Welch said after scoring four points with eight rebounds. "We've done a lot of successful things this year, but the run is not over."

"Well, obviously this was a game in which in my coaching career, I could never get over the hump," Staley said. "Part of the reason was at Temple, I thought we were a player or two away from being able to get over this hump and get into the Sweet 16.

"Does it legitimize our program? To a certain degree. I think our program has been through so much in the past four years that I'm very happy because it goes to show that we've done it the right way."

The Gamecocks (25-9) had a simple game plan - don't worry about the opponent. USC attacked and shot, shot and attacked, and let its defense be its usual self. The move paid off as the Gamecocks forced 13 turnovers in the first half and scored 15 points off of them; Purdue (25-9) was making most of what it shot but wasn't shooting enough.

As she was expected to do, senior captain La'Keisha Sutton took charge with the game's first six points and then let her teammates help her out. Markeisha Grant picked up her fallen shooting average of the last month to collect 21 points, and the Gamecocks kept firing away.

Purdue, used to hitting inside and nailing 3-pointers in flurries, never got into rhythm. The Boilermakers managed just four from long range - falling right into USC's wheelhouse as one of the best 3-point defending teams in the country. While Purdue's height snared 10 more rebounds than USC, it was also throwing more of them right into Gamecock hands.

The Gamecocks turned 20 turnovers into 20 points. Then when a 14-point second-half lead was sliced to seven, the play getting rough after a double technical on Sutton and Purdue's Chantel Poston, USC calmed down and turned to its other producers.

Ieasia Walker started a run of five straight field goals as she went to the hole and finished. Ashley Bruner hit two straight, then Grant and Walker went back-to-back, Walker finishing with a pretty stop-and-pop jumper.

Comfortably back in front, USC beat Purdue's press and got the ball to Aleighsa Welch, who scored four points in less than a minute. The Gamecocks simply would not miss, and the Boilermakers finally raised the white flag.

USC shot 49.1 percent. Sutton didn't score a second-half point but ended with 10. Walker had 17 and Bruner had 10.

Purdue gave USC wide-open lanes to drive and the Gamecocks took the challenge. They scored 32 points in the paint and only hit six 3-pointers, ending their two-game stay in West Lafayette with probably their best back-to-back shooting games of the season.

"We were knocking down shots and our defense played a major role today," Walker said. "We got stops and forced a lot of turnovers and we didn't turn it over that many times. It's anybody's game as long as we believe in ourselves."

USC hopes to take the offense with it to Fresno, where the 33-1 Cardinal await. Stanford is once again one of the country's very best teams, and is standing in the way of the Gamecocks' first Elite Eight berth since that same 2001-02 season.

As a player, Staley went to three straight Final Fours and never won that elusive national championship. Stanford beat Staley and Virginia in two of those years. The Cardinal also feature Staley's former Olympic coach, Tara VanDerveer.

Staley just might have a way to attack Stanford and its significant height advantage, with the game being played in its backyard. But the Gamecocks weren't intimidated by Purdue's home court, just as they weren't by home courts at Tennessee, Vanderbilt or what amounted to a Tennessee home crowd at the SEC tournament.

"When you go outside your conference, you're seeing a little different competition," Staley said. "They don't know you as well as some of our conference teams, and I think we find some mismatches on the offensive end and we're able to capitalize on them."

It will take a maximum effort to beat Stanford and keep the season rolling, but USC has accomplished so much already that it wouldn't be wise to count the Gamecocks out. Staley might even give the team a break from its normal 24-hour rule, letting the Gamecocks celebrate a little longer.

"I think we might get like, 26, maybe," Welch said. "We've got to go ahead and look forward to the next game. We'll celebrate it for tonight, go into tomorrow, but once it's back to practice, we've got to prepare for the next team we've got coming up."

And the next chance for another great moment.

"The clock could not wind down any quicker," Staley said. "I was looking at it wanting the time -- coach (Nikki) McCray and I always give each other a little look to speed the clock up, and it wouldn't go down any quicker.

"Just very, very happy for our players, very happy for our coaches who have worked extremely hard to put our players in a position to be successful. It's a happy time. It's a great day to be a Gamecock."

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