Dawn Staley can appreciate the journey. That does not mean she enjoys every single step.
“Knowing that South Carolina was pretty much a doormat when we got here, and people do have to take us seriously now — we’re an opponent that is not going to give up; we’re an opponent that is going to scratch and claw and fight — I’m incredibly proud of that,” the third-year South Carolina coach said. “On the flip side, you have to deal with a lot of losses to get to this point.”
When she was hired, Staley already was one of the most recognizable names and personalities in the history of women’s basketball, thanks to a playing career during which she excelled at the college, professional and international levels.
She also had a history of building a successful program. In eight seasons at Temple, she guided her team to seven postseason appearances (six in the NCAA tournament), four Atlantic 10 tournament titles, including three in a row, and the first Top 25 ranking in the school’s history.
To do the same in the Southeastern Conference, which annually includes some of the top teams in the country, figured to be a bit more of a challenge.
“Everything here is a day-to-day process,” Staley said. “At Temple, … not to knock the A-10, but that league was a little top-heavy. Here, you have to play as hard as you can all the time, and it still might not be enough to win.
“We’re not at the point where we have more talent than other teams, so we tell the kids we’re going to outwork everyone else. If we do that, we have a chance.”
The results have been obvious.
Staley’s first South Carolina team won just 10 games overall, two in conference play. Last season those numbers jumped to 14 and seven, respectively.
The Lady Gamecocks entered this week’s SEC Tournament 16-13 (8-8 in the SEC) and seeded fifth, the top team among the eight that participated in Thursday’s opening round. In the first game of the evening session, they got a game-high 15 points and nine rebounds from Ieasia Walker and 13 points and nine rebounds from Markeshia Grant in a 62-50 victory over Ole Miss (10-19).
South Carolina fell behind 4-0 at the start but scored the next 12 points and led the rest of the way as it won an SEC tournament game for the first time since 2007. In so doing, it advanced to Friday’s second round where it will face Georgia, a team with which it split two regular-season meetings.
“This year makes it worth having to deal with the first two years,” Staley said.
• Florida 68, Arkansas 59: Jennifer George scored the first five of nine unanswered points by the Lady Gators over the final three minutes.
George’s layup with 2:46 to play broke the eighth — and final — tie in a game Florida led by as many as 17 in the first half. She then made one free throw with 2:24 left and added a layup nine seconds later after teammate Deana Allen rebounded George’s miss on a second free throw attempt.
“We’ve had a little trouble with maintaining leads,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said. “I think … [the] first 12 minutes or so was probably the best basketball we played.”
George and Allen each finished with 12 points for Florida (18-13), which had five players score in double figures. Ndidi Madu added 12, and Jordan Jones, who surpassed 1,000 points for her career, and Jaterra Bonds had 11 apiece.
Lyndsay Harris had a game-high 18 points for Arkansas (18-11) and Quistelle Williams, who made all five of her field goal attempts, added 13.
• LSU 60, Alabama 36: The Lady Tigers allowed just four first-half field goals and 14 overall as the tied its own SEC tournament record for fewest points allowed. They also held Ole Miss to 36 points in 2008.
LSU (19-12) held Alabama (16-14) scoreless for the first 9:43 and jumped out to a 13-0 lead. Shafontaye Myers finally got the Crimson Tide on the board with a 3-pointer. The Lady Tigers led 26-9 at halftime and maintained an advantage of at least 14 points throughout the second half.
“We’ve been a team that’s made our living on defense,” LSU coach Van Chancellor said. “[Thursday] was a great example. When you hold an Alabama team to nine points in the first half — [that] got my attention.”
LSU’s LaSondra Barrett led all scorers with 14 points, and Adrienne Webb added 13. Ericka Russell scored a team-high nine for Alabama.
• Mississippi State 49, Auburn 47: Diamber Johnson scored the 11th-seeded Lady Bulldogs’ final 11 points as they rallied for a victory and advanced to Friday’s quarterfinals.
Mississippi State (13-16) trailed by five, 43-38, when Johnson started her run with a layup and free throw with 4:50 remaining. Her 3-pointer tied it 46-46 with 2:54 to go, and she put her team ahead for good on a jumper with 1:27 to play.
Johnson finished with a team-high 16 points and Mary Kathryn Govero added 15.
Auburn (15-15), the No. 6 seed, got game-highs of 18 points and 11 rebounds from Chantel Hilliard.
(at Bridgestone Arena)
Game 1: Florida 68, Arkansas 59
Game 2: LSU 60, Alabama 36
Game 3: South Carolina 62, Ole Miss 50
Game 4: Mississippi State 49, Auburn 47
Game 5: Tennessee vs. Florida, noon, Fox Sports
Game 6: Kentucky vs. LSU, 2:30 p.m. Fox Sports
Game 7: Georgia vs. South Carolina, 6:30 p.m., Fox Sports
Game 8: Vanderbilt vs. Mississippi State, 9 p.m., Fox Sports
Game 9: Game 5 winner vs. Game 7 winner, 3 p.m., ESPNU
Game 10: Game 6 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 5:30 p.m., ESPNU
Game 11: semifinal winners, 4:30 p.m., ESPN2