WBB: Top-four seed in the balance as AM visits

NO. 14 TEXAS A&M AGGIES (18-5, 8-1 SEC)
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: None
Tickets: Available at the box office
Texas A&M's probable starters: G Courtney Walker 5-8 Fr. (10.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg); G Adrienne Pratcher 5-7 Sr. (8.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg); F/G Courtney Williams 6-1 Fr. (5.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg); F Kristi Bellock 6-1 Sr. (9.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg); C Kelsey Bone 6-4 Jr. (17.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Sr. (9.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg); G Sancheon White 5-10 Sr. (5.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-7 Fr. (9.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 So. (12.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 Sr. (9.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina attempts to win its seventh straight game. …. The game is part of a doubleheader with the men's team (1 p.m. vs. Tennessee). Anyone buying a ticket to the men's game can stay for the women's game free of charge. … The Gamecocks are also promoting their "Think Pink" campaign, to raise awareness for breast cancer. USC will wear special warm-up T-shirts and pink sneakers, plus pink wristbands, headbands and the like. … USC needs six more overall wins and three more SEC wins to continue coach Dawn Staley's streak of improving each record during each year of her tenure. … USC is ranked No. 12 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.
Next game: USC tips off at No. 8 Kentucky at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Minutes after finishing a win at Alabama on Thursday, South Carolina's players huddled around their cellphones and iPads, tuned into the ESPN scoreboard app and hoping. LSU was beating Tennessee, Arkansas was ahead of Kentucky, and the No. 15 Gamecocks knew only too well that they were poised to reap the benefits.
LSU missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with seven seconds left and Tennessee's Bashaara Graves floated a jumper for the game-winning bucket just before the buzzer. Arkansas held on as the Wildcats forced overtime, but ran out of gas in the final five minutes and lost.
The Gamecocks weren't kicking chairs or glowering, but they were disappointed. Two prime chances for help just disappeared.
Then again, at 20-3 and 8-2 in the SEC, they're in prime position to help themselves.
"They're tough teams," point guard Ieasia Walker said on Friday. "We've just got to handle what we can handle."
If USC can do that on Sunday, and win its seventh straight game, it will be very likely to handle the SEC tournament as a top-four seed.
The No. 15 Gamecocks, in their quest for an SEC regular-season championship or at least a top-four finish (which ensures a bye from the first two rounds of the SEC tournament), host No. 14 Texas A&M on Sunday in what could be the make-or-break game for those hopes. When Thursday's action settled, the Aggies were a half-game ahead of USC in the standings at 8-1, while the Gamecocks shared space with Kentucky and Georgia at 8-2. The Lady Volunteers led the pack at 9-1.
USC is down a tiebreaker to Tennessee and Georgia with no chance to equal them. It has to get help (which was thought to be obtained on Tennessee's part until a missed free throw by LSU) to be able to top them. The Gamecocks are up a tiebreaker on Kentucky, but travel to Lexington for a rematch on Thursday.
This is the only matchup with A&M this year. Win, and the Gamecocks will be in prime position for the stretch run. After Kentucky, USC has games against cellar-dwellers Ole Miss and Mississippi State, then a game at Missouri and Senior Day against a Florida team which it's already beaten. The Tigers are a mere 4-5 in the SEC, but one of those wins was Tennessee's only loss.
If the Gamecocks fall to the Aggies, they're going to need a lot of help to get back in position for a top-four seed, especially if they also lose to Kentucky on Thursday. Today, USC would be a top-four seed if the SEC tournament was beginning. No telling what the case would be tomorrow or the next day.
This thing's going to happen, it has to start on Sunday.
"A&M has to play Kentucky and Tennessee, we still have to play Kentucky," coach Dawn Staley said. "It's a game that it would be nice to get on both of our parts, because it gives us an edge and it also gives us a tiebreaker with one another."
Stopping A&M comes down to stopping Kelsey Bone, the former USC forward who transferred after her freshman year and has continued her journey toward being a superstar. Bone leads the Aggies in scoring and rebounding, ranking second in the SEC in each category, and while A&M has other great players (Courtney Walker and Kristi Bellock are just behind Bone in the scoring column), Bone is the one to stop.
Not many have had the bulk, height or toughness to stop Bone throughout this year. She's lighter and quicker from her days at USC, and while Ashley Bruner has previous experience in practicing against her, that was a long time ago.
"It's a different type of preparation because she's so big and so skilled, but we're ready for the challenge," Bruner said. "I've got to be physical. Make her feel me, every play."
This is the kind of challenge that forward Charenee Stephens lived for, during her reign as one of the strongest Gamecocks to come through Staley's program. Not the tallest or heaviest, Stephens stood on the block and braced every opponent who played back-to-the-basket, pushing them out of their comfort zone and never letting them sink easy shots. Bruner learned alongside Stephens and is playing a fine senior year. This is the latest challenge.
"Just be big," Bruner said of her philosophy. "I know we're not the biggest people in the post, but I think we can frustrate her in certain areas, and just got to keep her off the boards and just sit on that right shoulder, because she is going and going and rebounding and I've just got to attack her."
Staley concurred, knowing exactly what her former pupil brings to a team that won the national championship two years ago.
"I think you have to show her different looks," Staley said. "She's pretty savvy, she's pretty poised down there on the block and she's able to do a lot of different things. We have to show her different looks and get comfortable playing her one way. She's surrounded by so much more talent that if you spend too much time worrying about what she's doing, then other people will hurt you."
As for the standings, Staley knows that they will take care of themselves. It's not necessarily a coffin nail if USC loses to A&M, but with only six regular-season games remaining, the window for getting help or smoothing over a loss is tiny.
"We absolutely were scoreboard-watching," Staley said of the Alabama post-game. "At this point, it's kind of fun. If you take care of your business, you can do that. When you don't, you have to look a little bit harder and cheer for some people that can help your situation out."
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