Game 1 -- (4) No. 17 South Carolina 74, (13) South Dakota State 52
Game 2 -- (12) Kansas 67, (5) No. 19 Colorado 52
Game 3 -- (4) No. 17 South Carolina vs. (12) Kansas, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
She was always good. That's what got Dawn Staley around to recruit her, Aleighsa Welch holding a certain measure of triviality as Staley's first home-grown recruit at South Carolina. Busting heads in the highest classification of prep women's basketball at Goose Creek High School, Welch was a three-time all-state selection, Class AAAA Player of the Year and South Carolina Miss Basketball as a senior.
The talent was there, and Staley wanted it, but she also saw all those glimpses of something just a little bit more. Welch was an inside technician, able to put any rebound back into the hole, and she could also defend, but did she have that extra "oomph," that extra bit of aggression or mean-ness required to compete in the SEC?
One game showed Staley - and Welch - all they needed to see.
"It was in me before, but I don't think until that game my junior year, did it come out," Welch said.
The Gators, playing for the Class AAAA state championship, against the Machine of South Carolina women's basketball. Spring Valley was so good that it was scary - loaded with future D-I talent and about to add another bauble to the trophy case.
"I heard the hype the way everybody else did," Welch said. "Xylina (McDaniel) Player of the Year, and Spring Valley, and we had beat them earlier in the year. So it was, 'Can they do it again, was it luck?'
"That kind of enraged me. I want to prove people wrong. I enjoy proving people wrong."
Welch was unstoppable that game, scoring 36 points and snaring 15 rebounds, leading the Gators all the way back from a 21-point deficit in the second quarter. Tied with four seconds to go and with the ball, Spring Valley panicked, calling a timeout when unable to get the ball inbounds.
The Vikings didn't have a timeout available. Technical foul, two shots.
Welch calmly toed the line and drilled one of the two free throws for a 64-63 win. While Spring Valley returned the favor and beat Goose Creek for the state championship a year later to complete an undefeated season, Staley saw the future of her program in Welch.
She just needed a little seasoning. Her freshman year, where she averaged 7.6 points per game with 6.1 rebounds, and learned how to play physical, tough defense from enforcer Charenee Stephens, was it.
Now as the final season of her sophomore year (non-conference, SEC, SEC tournament, NCAA tournament) unfolds, Welch is poised to take that spark from that game long ago and fan it into an inferno. After leading the Gamecocks with 12 points per game during the regular season, Welch scored eight points with five boards in USC's 74-52 demolition of South Dakota State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks play Kansas on Monday with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.
The Jayhawks feature a bruiser of a forward in 6-foot-3 Carolyn Davis, and Welch is likely to see her fair share of Davis during Monday's game. Of course Welch is respectful.
But not intimidated.
"All of it is a pride thing," Welch said. "You're not going to come in here and just beat me up. Probably maybe five of the teams we play, I'm probably the biggest person. It's not a lot of teams we play, especially in the SEC, where I'm going to be the biggest person. 'We're going to have a field day against them' -- You can't come in there with that mindset against me."
Welch has shown off more of her offensive game this season, although Staley wants more of it. While the Gamecocks of a year ago were led by their trio of guards, and posts Welch, Ashley Bruner and Stephens were more of the second-chance specialists, USC had to re-set this year. La'Keisha Sutton, Markeisha Grant and Stephens were gone - while point guard Ieasia Walker returned and can be a lethal scorer, she has also become a terrific floor general.
USC prefers to play inside-out this year, meaning that Welch was going to have to step up her offensive game. She prepared for it by spending the summer in the gym with her brother Ernesto Welch, himself a former Goose Creek star, and shot "until you don't want to shoot anymore."
That opened a fearlessness from Welch to shoot from mid-range, something that she tried "once, maybe twice" last year. This year, she's been much more non-hesitant to shoot when she has the ball 10 feet from the basket.
"She finally is comfortable shooting the mid-range shot," Staley said. "She just doesn't shoot it enough. She likes contact, so she likes to drive and force people to body her up."
Welch agreed, saying that the channeling of her anger at being disrespected in high school still serves her well. Combined with the learning from the bruising Stephens, Welch has turned into that complete player that Staley saw nearly complete on the recruiting trail, with two full years left in her college career.
"I really based my game around contact," Welch said. "I built my game around it. I had to just kind of step into a bigger role this season, which was the biggest thing for me, because I knew what I had to do."
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