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March 21, 2013

WBB: Underclassmen carry on

South Carolina only has nine active players, but five played in last year's Sweet 16 triumph and two inactive players (Tina Roy and Shelbretta Ball) were also along for the ride. Even with four newcomers playing vital roles to this year's team, the Gamecocks aren't worried about nerves or pressure that face them as they prepare to begin their second straight NCAA tournament.

There is some, but after playing 31 games, everyone realizes that this is what those 31 games were meant for - to prepare USC for this situation, this time where it has already been honored as one of the 64 best teams in the country. The Gamecocks have already proved that they belong.

Now to prove that they aren't merely satisfied with reaching the NCAA tournament, if last year didn't already handle that.

"I think experience is a good teacher for us," coach Dawn Staley said on Wednesday, a day before the Gamecocks were set to pack up and fly to Boulder, Colo., for their first-round game on Saturday. "We had some success last year going to Purdue. We're not going to solely rely on that."

So much of last year was about the building to this point. The group of seniors who had been there for the bad times - Charenee Stephens, Ebony Wilson, Courtney Newton and La'Keisha Sutton - had seen themselves get better and better, and when junior-college transfer Markeisha Grant arrived in time for the 2010-11 season, they knew that they had a chance to do great things.

It all paid off as near-misses at the tournament in 2009-10 and 2010-11 (WNIT) became a tournament appearance, and then the Gamecocks went to West Lafayette, Ind., and blew Eastern Michigan and Purdue away. The memorable season ended in Fresno, Calif., a week later, but despite the seniors departing, it left the rest of the team with a strengthened resolve.

The program had been constructed by those seniors, who had lost a lot of games before coming into the warm glow of success. Now the seniors were turning it over to the future, who were expected to keep it afloat, and do better.

Leading the charge this year were seniors Ieasia Walker, Sancheon White and Ashley Bruner, while sophomores Elem Ibiam and Aleighsa Welch were veterans despite their second-year status. Once the new class reported, that group explained what was expected now, and the newcomers immediately began taking the steps to accomplish it.

Freshman Tiffany Mitchell immediately stepped into a starting role and backups Khadijah Sessions, Asia Dozier and Wilka Montout learned their roles. With such a thin bench (freshman Tiffany Davis tore her ACL in November and was lost for the year, joining Roy, who tore her ACL in the preseason), everybody had to play, and everybody contributed to a 24-7 season thus far.

Whereas last year, the team had hope of going far but had to prove it was capable, this team expected to be in this situation and spent the entire season aiming toward the NCAA tournament. Now that it's here, it's time to take that final step.

"I'm a little nervous, to tell you the truth," Mitchell said. "But I just know when the game starts, I'll shake those nerves off and get into the flow of the game."

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