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March 7, 2013

WBB: Flighty pattern

SEC tournament bracket

Wednesday-Sunday * The Arena at Gwinnett Center * Duluth, Ga.

Game 1 -- (13) Alabama 63, (12) Mississippi State 36
*Note: Due to Ole Miss' self-imposed postseason ban, the No. 11 seed receives a bye to Thursday
Game 2 -- (8) Arkansas vs. (9) Florida, noon (SPSO)
Game 3 -- (5) South Carolina vs. (13) Alabama, 2:30 p.m. (SPSO)
Game 4 -- (7) Vanderbilt vs. (10) Missouri, 6 p.m. (SPSO)
Game 5 -- (6) LSU vs. (11) Auburn, 8:30 p.m. (SPSO)
Game 6 -- Game 2 winner vs. (1) Tennessee, noon (SPSO)
Game 7 -- Game 3 winner vs. (4) Texas A&M, 2:30 p.m. (SPSO)
Game 8 -- Game 4 winner vs. (2) Kentucky, 6 p.m. (FSS)
Game 9 -- Game 5 winner vs. (3) Georgia, 8:30 p.m. (FSS)
Game 10 -- Game 7 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 4 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 11 -- Game 9 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 6 p.m. (ESPNU)
Championship -- Game 11 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)


What: Second round, SEC tournament
When: 2:30 p.m. today
Where: The Arena at Gwinnett Center, Duluth, Ga.
TV: SportSouth
Tickets: Available at the box office
Alabama's probable starters: G Jasmine Robinson 5-7 Jr. (9.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg); G Daisha Simmons 5-10 So. (12.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg); G Meghan Perkins 5-11 Sr. (8.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg); F Nikki Hegstetter 6-2 Fr. (2.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg); F Kaneisha Horn 6-1 So. (8.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Sr. (9.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg); G Sancheon White 5-10 Sr. (4.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-9 Fr. (9.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 So. (12.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 Sr. (9.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina begins its SEC tournament stay. … Alabama beat Mississippi State 63-36 in Wednesday's play-in game. It was Alabama's first win the SEC tournament since 2005. … The Gamecocks beat the Crimson Tide 65-53 on Feb. 7 in Tuscaloosa. … USC leads the overall series 17-15 but Alabama coach Wendell Hudson is 0-7 vs. the Gamecocks. … USC is 1-2 against Alabama in the SEC tournament, with the win coming last year. … Walker, Bruner and Mitchell were named to one of the all-SEC teams while Walker was also named to the all-defensive team, and SEC Defensive Player of the Year. It is the first major SEC award a USC player has won. … Mitchell was named to the all-freshman team.
Next game: The winner plays Texas A&M at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.

Talking to her is much like watching her play - one never knows what they will get, but they're pretty sure it will be entertaining.

"One of my teachers told me, straight up, I need to move to Hollywood," Ashley Bruner confidently reveals. "I have family in California, in the L.A. area, and I worked in a bank this summer, so maybe I can work in a bank over there. He tells me you can make good money waitressing, too."

When pointed out that she doesn't seem like the type to take orders, which is a large part of being a waitress, Bruner agreed and quickly shrugged.

"Well, maybe not, then," she says. "Maybe I'll just play, then. Basketball is very serious to me, and I take it very seriously. And I hate to lose, and I think that shows on the court. When things are going our way on the court, I can show that in my emotions and my expressions. And I have that mindset, 'What are you going to do after this year? Am I going to play, am I going to do something else?' I feel like I need to live in the moment.

"I'm usually pretty fluttery."

That covers it.

Four years is nearing an end, as Bruner heads into her final postseason with South Carolina. It hasn't always been easy for the forward to adjust to the straight basketball skill required to play in the SEC and playing for a no-nonsense coach like Dawn Staley, but the effervescent Bruner has managed to carve out her own niche.

Bruner has probably set a record that will never be broken. She spent nearly as much time in Staley's office during her first three years at USC as Staley did. Keeping her enthusiasm for everyday life under control when it was time to practice was never an easy task, but Staley just couldn't give up on her - although the latter sometimes far outweighed the former, Staley's lovable frustration with Bruner never quite reached that boiling point.

"She's been on and off the team over the past four years," Staley said. "Being a senior now, she hasn't had a stretch where she's been off the team. She's got it … it all came together for her. You have to a be a stickler that if you let her get away with something, she'll try to do it again, not knowing that she's headed down the path to destruction. You wait for it. I can honestly say now that she has it."

Don't get the wrong idea - Bruner isn't a bad person. She's not showing up in headlines or police blotters. She's not a poster child for coaches putting up with players just because their talent far outweighs their personality.

It's just that Bruner, so infectious in her joy at being around, alive on the Earth every day, sometimes struggled with cutting that off and playing basketball the only way Staley has ever known - tough, hard-nosed, take crap from no one. Player and coach came to a mutual understanding, though, and it has resulted in Bruner being an integral part of the team, as much in leadership and chemistry as points and rebounds.

"She's the same way," Bruner said. "She's the same goofy person off the court, but when it's time to go, it's time to go. She taught me how to flip that switch on and off. You can play around in practice, but know that when we have three turnovers in a row, you need to get serious with the team. That's one thing that she taught me."

While choking down the incredulity of Staley ever being labeled "goofy," one realizes that Bruner is right. While Staley doesn't show much of her non-serious side to the cameras, off the court, her former players have lauded her more calm approach to the seasons. Staley even admitted that she was yelling a lot more than coaching when she first took over at USC; she turned her approach around and the Gamecocks began winning.

Bruner picked up on it, and used it to help herself out. She knew that it wasn't going to be a good thing if she and her coach kept having to take timeout, when each could be helping the team out, to spar with each other. As much as Bruner can still be silly, carefree and playful off the court, she can also be driven, determined and ferocious on it.

"Ashley didn't really start getting serious until this year. She wanted to do it right," Staley said. "She's a captain of our basketball team, something that I never thought she was capable of being."

It didn't start very easily, Bruner getting discovered in Norman, Okla., by assistant coach Nikki McCray and getting the word passed on to Staley. A double-double machine in high school on a team that once beat Brittney Griner's high-school team, the Gamecocks decided to branch out their recruiting ties and nabbed Bruner.

The only problem was, Bruner, unlike many of USC's other recruits past and present, had no idea who Staley was. "To this day, I've never seen a game, never seen her play," Bruner said. "Then I see the gold medals, and I'm like, 'OK, that's enough for me.'"

Not knowing of Staley and thus not knowing of her style, Bruner came to Columbia and immediately felt lost. A surprise just when preseason practice began in 2009 helped - Bruner's mother, Larisa Bruner, moved from Oklahoma to Columbia - but playing for Staley still took some getting-used-to.

"Freshman year, it was really like the coaches getting used to how disciplined we had to be. She yelled a lot more then," Bruner said. "That was a rough time for me, getting used to practice all the time. It was really just adjusting to all that. It wasn't knowing my role as to the guards come first or the first, second third options on the floor. It was really just adjusting to the coaches and what they expected out of me."

What they expected, bluntly, was to be basketball first, second, third and fourth. Bruner was going to play, and play a lot - she played in 27 games, averaging 2.5 points and 2.8 rebounds - but the Gamecocks wanted and needed more.

That's where the first real case of friction occurred.

"I thought Ashley came to college and wanted to experience it all. We want them to experience it, but it can't be at the expense of academics or the basketball part of it," Staley said. "She didn't make it to the SEC tournament (her first year) because we felt like she wasn't serious about basketball and she wasn't serious about her schoolwork, and sometimes it takes kids a little bit longer to make that transition."

That hammered the point home, and showed Staley another side of the rising sophomore. While being left at home for the postseason would naturally cause anyone to grumble, pout or threaten, Bruner took the punishment and overcame it.

"She doesn't hold grudges," Staley said. "You can hit her over the head with something and she'll just bounce right back."

It took a few more come-to-Jesus moments, but the one that stuck was when Staley recognized that she was often like Bruner off the court as well (OK, maybe not that much). The difference was that Staley always had a natural second gear, one that she easily slipped into once she got the ball in her hands.

"It's about flipping that switch," Bruner said. "That's the imagery she uses. 'Oh, you can goof around, but when the switch goes off, it's go time. You need to cut it out.'"

Bruner did, and her game exploded.

Never having to be that aggressive in the post due to the team's stellar guard play, Bruner developed into a very capable forward as a junior and a senior, doubling with Aleighsa Welch to present the Gamecocks with a versatile approach, and not just guards-do-everything basketball. Bruner said that a lot of the joking she does with her teammates is related to being recognized at the end of the year ("Got to do better if you want to be all-SEC!," she jibes), and it paid off as she was selected to the second team this year, with 9.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

Being a part of two straight NCAA tournament teams will be a fine stamp to her career, but Bruner isn't nearly done. The Gamecocks begin the SEC tournament today, and hope to go far; after that is the NCAA tournament, where they hope to trump (by a lot) their Sweet 16 triumph of last year.

The seriousness of this final year took over shortly before the season began. The team decided to do away with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram on Staley's recommendation to be focused on the season. That alone took away hours of Bruner's life - reading her Twitter feed sometimes took up one's entire timeline for evenings at a time.

That cut out a lot of the fun things that Bruner used to do in her first two years, like recording impromptu music videos with her teammates. She substituted by talking with her teammates a lot more, and that naturally led to becoming more vocal in what to do on the court, which also led to some eyebrow-raising.

"It's a girl thing, I think," Bruner said. "How we sometimes take things. In the end, it was a learning experience, how they want to be talked to, how they talk to you, how they take in information. When they told me all that and how I sometimes talk, they're trying to better me to help better them. It's all good now. In the moment, it's like, 'Do you really feel this way?'"

It all paid off as Bruner became one of the team's linchpins this season. There have still been times where she's had to fight off her emotions - in the regular-season finale, after being honored for Senior Day, Bruner followed a two-point first half with a 14-point second - but it's all come together.

Even without the constant social updates.

"(Staley) just wanted us to have our minds freer because Twitter is so time-consuming, and so fun!," Bruner said. "But believe me, when we get it back, we're going to make up for lost time."

That's fine. That will be after the season, when Staley has seen Bruner lead the Gamecocks to their highest heights yet. Then she'll congratulate Bruner, who will graduate in May with a major in theater, and realize just how far she's come.

"Ashley has matured so much," Staley said. "She's one of the funniest people I know. She makes me laugh and I am going to miss her in the locker room. I think she righted all the wrongs that she had, and that's what you want to see from them. I'm so glad to see her grow into a leadership role."

Bruner, the one who says that sleeping and shopping are her two favorite off-the-court activities this year. Bruner, the one who can smile even when she's being pummeled by the opposing center. Bruner, the silly, laughing, gifted player who Staley often wondered if she was ever going to harness her talent.

She has. And it's been fun to watch. All those times that Staley had to call her on the carpet only strengthened her resolve to get the talent out of Bruner, and for Bruner to realize what she could be.

Although she still retained her individuality and ability to turn anything into a light moment.

"My like-ness helps me when I get criticism, especially this year," Bruner said. "I've really learned if you're going to give it, you have to take it. I feel like I've changed a lot for my team as a captain now."

Can't fit all that into a Tweet, but the message is crystal clear.

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