End-of-year gauntlet stands between Gamecocks, SEC title

dcloninger@thestate.comFebruary 10, 2014 

Aleighsa Welch, 24, for USC goes up for two against Arkansas defender Jessica Jackson, 00, Sunday afternoon at the Colonial Life Arena.

VAN HOPE — Special to The State

It looked daunting before the season, and more so during it.

Now that it’s here, it’s even bigger. Because it’s the last hurdle facing a South Carolina women’s team that is not just looking for a top-four finish in the SEC, but a top finish.

The final five games of the Gamecocks’ regular season begin on Sunday as USC will tip off at No. 19 LSU. USC (22-2, 10-1 SEC), in first place in the league and newly christened as the No. 5 team in the country, will find out just how good it is over the next five games.

“The hunters vs. the hunted,” SEC Co-Player of the Week Aleighsa Welch said after USC beat Arkansas on Sunday. “We have to know that we’re being hunted, but also have that hunter’s mentality.”

The Gamecocks have had a goal of a top-four finish for each of the past two years, only to just miss by being on the losing end of tiebreakers. This season, they’re nearly a lock for a top-four finish, but they want more.

USC is in first place, leading Texas A&M and Tennessee by 1.5 games, and is in striking distance of the program’s first SEC regular-season championship. To get to the finish line first, the Gamecocks will have to survive a gauntlet that they knew was going to be their biggest challenge.

At the Tigers begins it. Then a trip to No. 18 Kentucky. USC will have a two-game home stand against Florida and Georgia, each unranked, and then head to Knoxville for a date with No. 8 Tennessee that might decide the champion.

USC gets through that stretch and remains in first, it will certainly have earned it.

“We’re jockeying for positions,” coach Dawn Staley said. “The way you look at it is, if we continue to do what we’ve done all season long, that stuff will take care of itself.”

LSU continues to cling to fourth place in the league despite a loss to No. 14 Texas A&M on Sunday.

Kentucky, thought to be a Final Four contender in the preseason, continues to slip. The Wildcats are 5-5 after losing to Florida on Sunday. USC beat Kentucky in Columbia on Jan. 9 but hasn’t won at Memorial Coliseum since 2008.

The Gators are the most surprising team in the SEC, in a tie for fourth place despite only having nine players on the roster. Florida has avoided any serious injuries and is challenging LSU and Vanderbilt for a top-four finish.

Georgia -- what’s wrong with Georgia? The Lady Bulldogs, the most consistent team in league history outside of Tennessee, started 0-4 in the SEC for the first time. They have fought to get back to 4-6 but are not the kind of team that they historically have been.

The Lady Vols are 8-2 and in second place with A&M (and handed the Aggies their first SEC loss). The final game of the regular season could determine a title or split title and tournament seeding. What could help USC in that situation is that the Gamecocks have only beaten the Vols once at Thompson-Boling Arena. That was the last time they played there.

With the other teams also beating each other up, the Gamecocks could get a lot of help in their quest.

But their biggest help comes from themselves continuing to win.

“We’re just going to concentrate on getting another win on the road, at LSU, and whatever’s after that is after that,” Staley said.

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