USC sends its seniors off in style

Gamecocks capture their 10th SEC win and set eyes on postseason

ashain@thestate.comFebruary 26, 2012 

For 25 minutes on Sunday, South Carolina shot poorly, lost the ball and couldn’t rebound against Arkansas.

Then Ieasia Walker, who committed four turnovers in a scoreless first half, hit a jumper and was fouled after she rebounded a Razorback miss. She missed the free throw, but forward Ashley Bruner scored on a put back to cut Arkansas’ biggest lead of the day to four.

The baskets sparked a 14-4 run that gave USC its first lead with 10 minutes to go in the game, and the Gamecocks (21-8, 10-6 SEC) never looked back in a 53-47 victory. South Carolina earned its first 10-win SEC season in a decade and has all but cinched its first NCAA bid in nine seasons with the league’s fourth-best record.

“We have put ourselves in the position to be talked about,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “That’s all we can do.”

But before the NCAAs, the Gamecocks will be the No. 6 seed in the SEC tournament and play 11th-seeded Alabama in the first round on Thursday in Nashville. USC beat the Tide twice this year by an average of 20 points.

After a first half spent struggling against its own poor shooting, USC shot 50 percent in the second half while outrebounding the Razorbacks 23-15.

USC dominated inside — outscoring Arkansas 24-6 in the paint in the final 20 minutes. The Gamecocks, who usually needs help from the perimeter, hit one 3-pointer against the Razorbacks (21-7, 10-6).

“We have a tendency to rely on outside shots, and when they’re not falling, we don’t make the adjustments. So we wanted score points in the paint,” Staley said.

The team used its clear-out plays to open the floor and let guards drive one-on-one to the basket or hand off to forwards for easy buckets, Staley said.

USC’s post players enjoyed good games. Charenee Stephens, one of five seniors playing in her final game at Colonial Life Arena, had eight points and a team-high 11 rebounds. Bruner added 15 points and eight rebounds by taking advantage of Arkansas not boxing out.

But it was La’Keisha Sutton, a senior guard averaging more than 15 points in her past three games, who led the team with 16 points.

During USC’s rally, Sutton hit two straight baskets to tie the game before Walker took another rebound off an Arkansas miss and weaved through three Razorbacks for a layup that gave USC the lead for good.

Sutton, a Trenton, N.J., native, likely will be headed to her first NCAA tournament after seeing the Gamecocks improve from 10 to 21 wins in four seasons under Staley.

“I’m honestly thinking about the SEC tournament first,” Sutton said. “And from there we’ll take it to the NCAA tournament.”

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