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February 9, 2013

Cloninger: WBB -- Best for all concerned



"You can go your own way."
--------------- FLEETWOOD MAC

This one's been circled for a while, not only for what it could mean to the season, but for what it would mean for South Carolina's mental makeup. The Gamecocks were going to have to deal with enough of a problem, because she's such a good player.

But the real question was always going to be: Can they deal with playing Kelsey Bone, Ex-USC Star, instead of Kelsey Bone, Texas A&M Star?

"I think it's an element of the game, the fact that she was here, she started here and she transferred to Texas A&M," coach Dawn Staley said on Friday, two days before her No. 15 Gamecocks were set to welcome Bone and the No. 14 Aggies to Columbia for a crucial game. "But as far as I'm concerned, it's another game, it's a big game, it's a home game, it's a game that we must get if we want to continue to fight for the title of being SEC champions."

"She's just another great player on a team," said senior guard Ieasia Walker, one of two Gamecocks that were on the team when Bone was at USC. "We're just looking forward to playing them and trying to get another Top-25 win."

Staley knew she was going to be asked about it because that's what had to be asked. Bone was the first major recruit that Staley signed when she took over at USC, her commitment the brightest of bright spots after a 10-18 initial campaign. Bone was the consensus second-ranked recruit in the country (No. 1 - Brittney Griner) and had won three Parade All-American awards and the McDonald's John Wooden National High School Player of the Year prize. Staley started her in 27 of 29 games in a 14-15 season in 2009-10, and Bone responded with 14 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, tops among all SEC freshmen and good enough for the Associated Press Newcomer of the Year award.

Nobody could wait for the next year, but then came the shocking announcement - Bone was leaving. Staley said that Bone felt she would be more comfortable somewhere else, and was backed by the rest of her team as a show of solidarity; Staley labeled it a shock but in the end, it was what Bone wanted to do and there was nothing she could do about it.

"Sometimes when you don't win as many games as you would like, and you don't go to the NCAA tournament or the NIT, sometimes you start thinking about that as a coach, as a player," Staley said then. "I'm quite sure maybe that played a role in it, but I don't know how significant."

Bone transferred to Texas A&M, close to her home, and sat out the 2010-11 season while the Aggies won the national championship. As a redshirt sophomore in 2011-12, she averaged 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds; as a redshirt junior this season, she is second in the SEC with 17.3 points and 9.5 rebounds. When the Aggies joined the SEC, everyone knew the matchup would eventually happen.

Now it's here. Bone would have been a senior had she stayed, preparing for one of her last home games alongside Walker and Ashley Bruner. Each player said on Friday that they have very seldom spoken with Bone since she departed, except for social media (which the team vowed not to use this season). Staley said that she hasn't spoken to Bone since she decided to leave.

But the shadow has always hovered, with the question, 'What if … ?"

It's a question that has no answer, the main reason being, each side turned out far better than OK. A&M has a great player and is making a lot of noise in its first year in the league, and USC has improved every season under Staley. The Gamecocks won 25 games last year, made it to the Sweet 16 and are 20-3 this year going into the game, all without Bone.

"I said when she left, sometimes you gain by losing, and we certainly didn't skip a beat," Staley pointed out. "We kept it moving and she's having a great career, so everybody found their happiness."

Look, I know how it works. A high-profile player leaves and begins lighting it up somewhere else, and the lost little boy of a USC fan starts wondering why, what, would if the player was still around. I've heard enough Ramon Galloway talk to get that point hammered clearly into my brain.

It's easy to say that had Bone stayed, the Gamecocks would have achieved last year a year earlier. But nobody can prove that.

Consider:

* USC darned near made the NCAA tournament the next year anyway after Bone left. A couple of overtime losses in late February cost it a chance at an at-large bid, and the Gamecocks played the entire year with Valerie Nainima coming off an offseason ACL tear. Nainima returned to play that season, but was obviously not the leading scorer that she was during Bone's only year with the program. The team was still good enough to make it to the WNIT.

* If Bone had been around, would that have hindered the development of the instrumental players of last year's run? Would Charenee Stephens have become an enforcer on the block, with Bone playing above her? Doubtful. And with Bone expected to be the go-to scorer, guard La'Keisha Sutton may not have become the take-over scorer that she became. Shoot, Sutton was never quiet that she wanted to leave after her first two years with the program; had Bone stayed, she may have followed through with that desire.

* Bone's departure gave the program a black eye, surely. USC got another one when another high-profile player, Kayla Brewer, transferred in December 2010. Brewer landed at Texas, where she averages 0.8 points and 1.8 rebounds in six games this year (and is somehow listed as a senior). But as Staley said then, "I sleep well at night, knowing my history. Just look at my history and the players that have played under me. Once you let the process work for you, they turn out all right. They turn out to be positive citizens of this world. Sometimes it just doesn't work out, for one reason or another."

As it is, Bone's departure forced Staley to lean more on her guards, and when she softened her approach, the team responded. The Gamecocks transformed into an outstanding team, a battle-hardened group leading the way last year and a defense-first squad doing it this year. She has continued to reel in top-ranked recruits and cement her status as one of the best coaches in the game.

Bone's return brings back some old memories, and not particularly pleasant ones, but Staley handled the questions with no hesitation. She's perfectly happy with where her program is, and it seems as if Bone is happy with hers. That's the only real thing that matters, even for the ones that love to think about what might have been.

"It's ironic, isn't it?," Staley said. "Funny how the world works. I guess it was meant to be for us to face each other. For her, I'm glad she's found success at Texas A&M, I'm glad that we found success here at USC, with her departure.

"There are probably not many people that thought we would survive. But we survived, and I think we pretty much over-achieved anybody's expectations. Not ours, though."



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