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February 3, 2013

WBB: SEC standings start to loom as USC enters stretch


When: 3 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: None
Tickets: Available at the box office
Auburn's probable starters: G Hasina Muhammad 6-1 So. (16.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg); G Najat Ouardad 5-1 Sr. (4.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg); G Tyrese Tanner 6-1 Jr. (12.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg); F Blanche Alverson 6-3 Sr. (11.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg); C Peyton Davis 6-5 Jr. (6.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Sr. (9.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg); G Sancheon White 5-10 Sr. (5.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-7 Fr. (10.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 So. (12.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 Sr. (9.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina returns from its bye week with a home game. … Auburn leads the overall series 21-15 but the teams have split the last six meetings. … USC has not been 7-2 in the SEC since 2001-02. … The Gamecocks are at their highest spot in the Top 25 since 2003. … No USC opponent has scored its season average against the Gamecocks, and only four have come within 10 points of their average. … USC is third in the country in scoring defense. …. Auburn is 1-3 against Top 25 teams this year. … USC is ranked No. 13 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.
Next game: USC tips off at Alabama at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.

It's right there, softly glowing on the stat sheets and the bulletin board, becoming more luminous with every game. South Carolina looks at it and sees where it is, and where it could be.

And knows that with every game, it can move in either direction, and the window to reverse whatever direction that is shrinks.

"We absolutely do," coach Dawn Staley said on Friday. "At this juncture of the season, we do control our own destiny. We do talk about winning tiebreakers. It has to be in the back of their minds about jockeying, because when it comes down to us, if it's tied, we're going to have to look at it anyway. We might as well look at it now."

The SEC standings will be a popular topic until the end of the regular season, now that the Gamecocks (18-3, 6-2 SEC) have completed half of their league schedule. USC is in prime position to be a top-four finisher, and thus earn a bye out of the first two days of the SEC tournament, but if the tournament began today, the Gamecocks would be the No. 5 seed.

The next eight games, a stretch that starts with today's home game against Auburn, will define the seeds for the SEC tournament and determine how tough USC's road will be toward potentially winning its first tournament title. Right now, the Gamecocks need some help, but they're also in position to control some of their own destiny.

Tennessee is 8-0 and has a tiebreaker over USC. The Gamecocks would need the Lady Volunteers to drop at least three games while they win out. Kentucky and Texas A&M are behind at 7-1, but USC has a tiebreaker over the Wildcats (but will play them again) and will host Texas A&M on Feb. 10.

USC is tied with Georgia at 6-2 but loses a tiebreaker to the Lady Bulldogs. Then there's a two-game cushion between USC and LSU and Vanderbilt, each 4-4 and each having lost to the Gamecocks.

Of course the Gamecocks' primary thoughts are always on the next game, but scoreboard-watching will start to creep into the post-game discussions over the next few weeks. USC will want to keep up with the Joneses and see how close it can get to a top-four finish, and what it will have to do.

For now, it's win, and don't worry about the others.

"I think we all keep track of it, just to see who's winning what games," forward Aleighsa Welch said. "At the end of the day, we know we need to focus on our next game. If we get too caught up in worrying about being a fifth seed or a fourth seed, you can drop a game you might need to win. Our focus now is the Auburn game, then the Alabama game."

USC used its bye week to get its legs back, still practicing but participating in what Staley calls "active rest." They didn't not go to practice, but they didn't run two-a-days just because they had the time to, either.

"We're just trying to get our offense going, and also rebounding," Staley said. "We've been out-rebounded the last two games. We don't want that to snowball into something that becomes out of control."

USC has still found ways to win despite the lapse, and its defense is as good as it's ever been. The schedule offers a great chance to win a fifth and sixth straight, today and then against Alabama, but after comes a hellish week of A&M and at Kentucky.

The Gamecocks have responded to the challenge so far, Staley saying the team doesn't necessarily practice that well, but it plays well. She's hoping the offense stabilizes, the rebounding returns to form and the Gamecocks look at the standings as a motivator.

That begins today. USC has usually had a tough time with Auburn, but the game is at home and the Tigers aren't coming off a bye.

"We've had a long stretch of games and we're on our home stretch now," Welch said. "We don't want to have a lapse coming off the bye week."

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