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December 19, 2012

WBB: No. 1 Stanford visits USC

VIDEO: Dawn Staley, Aleighsa Welch, Ieasia Walker

20121218-Staley-Walker-Welch-CW from GamecockCentral.com on Vimeo.


When: 7:30 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: Fox Sports Net
Tickets: Available at the box office
Stanford's probable starters: G Amber Orrange 5-7 So. (10.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg); G Toni Kokenis 5-11 Jr. (8.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg); F Chiney Ogwumike 6-3 Jr. (20.9 ppg, 11.8 rpg); F Joslyn Tinkle 6-3 Sr. (16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg); F Mikaela Ruef 6-3 Jr. (2.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Sr. (8.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg); G Sancheon White 5-10 Sr. (6.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-7 Fr. (11.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 So. (11.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 Sr. (11.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina returns from the exam break for its biggest game of the non-conference season. … USC will only play three games over the next 10 days. … Part of a doubleheader with the USC men's team. … The Gamecocks have played the No. 1 team in the country eight other times in their history and are 0-8 in those games. The last time a No. 1 team visited Columbia, Connecticut won 77-48 during coach Dawn Staley's first season. … A rematch of the game that knocked USC from the NCAA tournament last year. … Stanford leads the all-time series 4-0. … USC can get its first win over a No. 1 team and set a record for the best start in school history with a win. Staley can also record her 250th career victory. … The Gamecocks have held eight of 10 opponents under 50 points this year.
Next game: USC hosts S.C. State at noon on Friday.

Dawn Staley's reclamation project at South Carolina, as she said, took longer than expected, but it happened. Her Gamecocks, with a glittering 10-0 record and a new perch at No. 21 in the latest Associated Press Top 25, are a program that has arrived.

Now to take one more step, from being a good program that can do great things, to a great program that can be one of the elite.

USC once again has a chance to show the nation that not only has it arrived, but it plans on sticking around, tonight. The Gamecocks host No. 1 Stanford (9-0) at 7:30 p.m., a game that won't mean anything to SEC play but a game that is the most important game in quite a while for the program.

It's a chance to show that the Gamecocks are in this for the long haul, and not just feasting on a soft non-conference schedule to open the season. It's a chance to keep the run going, one that started with a demolition of North Carolina last year and continued with a shocking win at Tennessee and then a dismantling of Purdue in the NCAA tournament round of 32.

It's also a chance to gain some small measure of revenge. It was the Cardinal who ended the Sweet 16 run last year, 76-60, on their home court. While nothing would truly replace that result, ending a season that was such a joy to experience and seeing the careers of five seniors who rode a bumpy train to success, it would be nice to get one back for the ones who left everything they had on the floor.

"We mention last year. You have to," Staley said on Tuesday. "It's a good measuring stick for where we are. To bring the No. 1 team in here, the excitement of it, the challenge of it, to play against what I consider one of the great basketball minds in Tara VanDerveer, this is why you coach. This is why you play."

Staley was proud of her team for the way it fought last year, saying after the team's return to Columbia that Stanford "didn't out-hustle us, they out-talented us." There was only so much the Gamecocks, built around small, speedy guards, could do against the redwood-tree post players in the Cardinal's lineup.

Nnemkadi Ogwumike turned the Gamecocks inside-out last year, scoring a ridiculous 39 points and snaring 10 rebounds. While she's gone, her sister Chiney Ogwumike returns, and is pacing Stanford in points and rebounds this year.

USC is a near-completely different team. Only Ieasia Walker returns from the three-guard lineup that anchored last year's squad, and the emphasis this year has been to work the ball in to the twin posts of Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch. The Gamecocks' five newcomers, down to four with the loss of Tiffany Davis to a knee injury, have been worked into the rotation and the entire team plays.

Bruner and Welch are the keys to the game, since they'll be charged with stopping Ogwumike on defense and going against her on offense. USC simply can't match up with the Cardinal if the game turns into a half-court affair; the Gamecocks are at their best when they can run at a team and get scores of transition points.

"That's what we'll probably have to do in order to win this ballgame," Staley said. "We're nothing like what they can do from an offensive standpoint in the half-court. It's paramount that we not allow (a 39-point) type of game. We cannot allow her to have that kind of day. We can't allow that to happen."

Bruner and Welch know what it will take, after seeing it happen to them last year. They are not taller or bulkier than Ogwumike or the Cardinal's other posts, but they can trade their disadvantage for an advantage in speed, and also take a lesson from the departed. Forward Charenee Stephens, one of last year's five seniors who is currently working with the police force, wasn't bigger or heavier than many of her opponents, but she didn't let it stop her.

"I had to go against it every day in practice. It kind of prepared me for what to go against," said Welch, describing Stephens' strength. "You can't ever come into a game thinking, 'Since they're bigger, I'm going to allow them to push me around.' I'm smaller, but I'm still going to fight. I'm still going to battle."

Bruner agreed.

"Just use my speed," she recently said. "I may not have height and length, but I'm kind of quick, so I use that to my advantage. You're only guarding one person, and the ball can only go in one place. It's like the mindset that they're not going to touch it, or if they do touch it, they're going to have a tough shot to put up. It's about being a pest."

It's a chance to really stamp the Gamecocks as a force to be reckoned with come conference play and then March, and to notch some notable milestones (Staley's 250th win as a coach, and the program's first win in nine tries over a No. 1 team). USC is a good team, a very good team, but it wants to be on that select level of teams like the Connecticuts, the Tennessees.

The Stanfords.

"I think it's probably our biggest game since we've been here," Walker said. "They are the No. 1 team, so we have to respect that, but we also want to take advantage of playing them. It will measure us against the tougher competition or the established programs in the NCAA.

"I think people know about us. This can be a game like (Tennessee last year) if we do come out in a victory."

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