Aleighsa Welch ready to lead charge for Gamecocks

Sweet 16 loss heightens focus for senior season

dcloninger@thestate.comApril 1, 2014 

— The hurt didn’t affect the goal, the pursuit of which began immediately.

Through the tears and the chagrined expression, Aleighsa Welch said it – this won’t happen again.

“Now I’m at the point where my senior season starts right now,” South Carolina’s junior forward said after Sunday’s 65-58 loss to North Carolina. “It starts with working and taking this loss and game that we feel like we should have won.”

Welch, named an honorable-mention All-American on Tuesday, was beating herself up because that’s what leaders do. As a freshman, Welch exhibited leadership qualities on a team stocked with five seniors who had been through the struggles of Dawn Staley’s first season. It grew and grew, Welch raising her game but also knowing when to step back and let others raise theirs.

This season, Welch would make the extra pass to Tiffany Mitchell and Alaina Coates, hastening their development as much as the team’s. Mitchell wound up SEC Player of the Year (Welch received some votes). and Coates was SEC Freshman and Co-Sixth Woman of the Year. Their statistics were aided by Welch giving them opportunities in the non-conference season instead of shooting the ball herself.

Welch came into the year knowing that she had to be that leader, with one senior on board and Welch one of three players on the roster who had been on the previous two NCAA tournament teams. The result – USC going 29-5 with an SEC regular-season championship and a trip to the Sweet 16 – surprised her.

“I didn’t know what to expect, because we lost so much last year,” Welch said. “To see us just blossom into this team and to see us exceed a lot of expectations this year, I couldn’t be more proud. We’re practically bringing everybody back, plus a great recruiting class. The sky’s the limit.”

The work begins now. Expectations will be high next year, as they should be for a team returning all of its talent and welcoming a hefty recruiting class. The Gamecocks will be expected to win another league title, and the Sweet 16 should be a minimum for postseason advancement.

Welch, Elem Ibiam and Olivia Gaines will be seniors, with Tina Roy a redshirt junior beginning her fourth year in the program.

“When we get back, we’re just going to start working then, working in the gym during the offseason,” Ibiam said. “We’ll get some shots up as soon as possible.”

Shots, pickup games, workouts, individual drills. There is little time for summer vacations or days off.

The Gamecocks let one get away. They could have been playing Stanford on Tuesday for a spot in the Final Four.

Instead, they were at home watching North Carolina and Stanford play.

Welch spoke of how the feeling from that across-the-country locker room will resonate throughout next season.

“Most definitely,” she said. “Especially with me going into my senior year. That’s going to fuel me, I have no doubt in my mind it’s going to fuel my teammates.

“And if it doesn’t, I’ll make sure it does.”

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