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March 4, 2013

WBB: Gamecocks feeling good heading into postseason

SEC tournament bracket

South Carolina did what it set out to do, winning its final regular-season game and heading into this week's SEC tournament on a good note. While the Gamecocks received a post-game sting when they saw that Texas A&M lost, meaning that had USC beaten Missouri, it would have jumped over the Aggies in the standings and received a two-round bye, they quickly shoved it aside and got ready for the next game.

It's a different time of year now. It's win or go home. While the No. 14 Gamecocks are assured of their second straight NCAA tournament berth after the SEC tournament (selections will be announced on March 18), they want to go to Duluth, Ga., on Thursday and show that they're not just happy to be in the postseason.

They want to win the postseason. A daunting task, to be sure, but nobody ever became great by settling.

"We're not going down to just win a game here and there," coach Dawn Staley said after Sunday's 67-56 win over Florida. "We feel like we're playing a lot better, especially on the offensive end. We just have to make sure we hold serve defensively."

The Gamecocks will take on either Alabama or Mississippi State in their first tournament game, an advantage since they've beaten those two teams a combined three times this season and because those two have to play at 6 p.m. the previous night, with the winner getting up to play USC at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday.

They also have the knowledge that they had a terrific postseason run last year, reaching the SEC tournament semifinals for the first time in school history and then making the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. There are seven players on the roster (five that play) who were around for that, and they can impart the knowledge of what's needed to win in the postseason to the first-timers.

"I think considering we did play in postseason last year, we have some experience with it," Staley said. "The core of our players have gone to the Sweet 16. So we're going to draw on those experiences to help our youngsters grow up a bit."

USC (23-6) is in a good spot. The Gamecocks did split their final six games, but have won three of four. The two losses before that were by two and four points, respectively, to top seeds Kentucky and Texas A&M.

The Gamecocks have made a living all season on their defense, allowing only three opponents all year to score more than 60 points, and are hoping that stands pat in the postseason. Their offense, not the most consistent or fluid in the half-court but outstanding on the break, is beginning to peak.

Starting freshman Khadijah Sessions for three games before Sunday seemed to give USC an extra bit of oomph in its scoring, as Tiffany Mitchell could come off the bench and supply instant offense. Staley started Mitchell against Florida; Sessions seemed to be a bit peeved at first, playing 100 miles per hour and throwing the ball away, but she recovered to score nine points while Mitchell had seven.

Getting that kind of production and not having to rely solely on forwards Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch has given the Gamecocks a new look. Point guard Ieasia Walker is free to run the offense and not have to worry about carrying the team - although when she has to, she does, as shown on Sunday - and USC can attack in different ways. That will be vital in the postseason.

Every opponent from here on knows that the Gamecocks will have trouble against a 2-3 zone defense, but USC is getting better at handling it. Against the Gators, USC showed a more disciplined approach to driving the lane against the zone, after a couple of shot-clock violations.

When four of the Gamecocks' six losses came by a combined 12 points, that's a good thing to see. In each of those games, USC lost because it simply couldn't hit shots, chip shots right at the rim. The Gamecocks still struggle in stretches to hit those, but are doing better than they were.

It will make them a tough out, no matter who they play. The Gamecocks aren't just in the postseason, they're feeling great about their chances.

"I think we definitely needed this win," Walker said. "We did a little better at handling the zone, because we know we're going to see a lot of that heading into the SEC tournament. We know what we have to do, we just have to execute it a little bit better."

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