Gamecocks, Staley on the rise

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - Dawn Staley likes what she's seen recently out of her South Carolina Gamecocks. Now, she wants more.

South Carolina's second-year coach is pleased with her team's longest Southeastern Conference win streak in four years and the way it bounced back from an 0-2 league start with three consecutive victories.

Staley, though, says her players must continue striving if they hope to make the NCAA tournament in March.

"Right now, we need to continue to see the results of playing scrappy, and shooting the ball well and defending the ball well and executing the game plan," said Staley, South Carolina's second-year coach. "What we are trying to do is build a resume, so come March, it's good enough to get in the NCAA tournament."

That might not be as far fetched as it looked at the season's start when the Gamecocks (10-7, 3-2 SEC) opened 2-3 and lost to ranked opponents Oklahoma and Notre Dame during a Thanksgiving week tournament, stretching their run of futility against Top 25 teams to 28 losses in a row.

South Carolina ended that streak in the tournament's finale, a 58-55 win over then 23rd-ranked San Diego State that was the Gamecocks first Top 25 upset since December 2005.

The Gamecocks have so continued over achieving in one of the country's most difficult conferences. They defeated a Kentucky team that had come in 13-2 earlier this month. South Carolina's 63-49 victory over Alabama last Sunday equaled the 10 wins it got in Staley's debut year a season ago.

Next up is a trip to LSU on Thursday night. The Gamecocks fell to then-No. 11 Tigers, 70-58, on Jan. 3, but are ready to build on what they've accomplished since.

"It's time to move forward," said freshman Kelsey Bone, who leads the SEC with 9.9 rebounds a game. "It feels good to have those three wins and jumping some hurdles that haven't been crossed in a long time here.

"The things that we set forward to do this year, it's not coming as soon as we thought it would," Bone continued, "but it is happening for us."

A season ago, Staley suffered through perhaps the most exasperating time of her career. A consummate winner in high school, college, the pros and the Olympics, Staley couldn't understand why her Gamecocks didn't always burn for success the way she did. The result was a 10-18 disaster including 2-12 in the SEC that Staley vowed would not happen again.

The first step was attracting players like Bone, a 6-foot-5 center considered one of the country's top 5 recruits by some analysts. Though the transition's been difficult at times, Bone has excelled and averaged nearly a double-double in points and rebounds this season.

"We've beaten her up some in here," Staley said with a smile.

Most of the time in high school, Bone would simply overwhelm opponents with here size, strength and moves. Now, Bone routinely faces players every bit as tall, as strong and versatile as she is. That's shaken Bone from her comfort zone. She remembers the win over Auburn when she had to drive the baseline for baskets, something she rally did as a prep star.

"Hey, that's what I signed up for," Bone said.

Another newcomer, junior transfer Valerie Nainima, has given Staley's team a boost from the outside. Nainima leads the Gamecocks at almost 19 points a game and has shot 16 of 30 from 3-point range.

The team's goal is to see its name called when NCAA selections are announced, something that hasn't happened since 2003.

"We are playing with a certain level of fight, a certain level of scrappiness that you need when you're not playing well," Staley said. "So for us, we're actually playing well and we've got the scrappiness going."

Sounds like a Gamecock combination Staley can love at last.


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