Successful Year Leads to Postseason Berth

Despite off-court problems and transfers, Dawn Staley and her South Carolina women's basketball team overcame all the obstacles it faced and will be playing postseason basketball. Though it's not likely the Gamecocks will make the NCAA Tournament, they are a shoe-in to make - and host - a first-round WNIT game.

When the field for the 2011 NCAA Women's basketball tournament is announced, you likely won't hear South Carolina. After losing its final two games of the regular season to LSU and Vanderbilt - each in overtime after having leads lat in the game - and failing to show up in its second-round game in the SEC Tournament in a 66-34 loss to Georgia, hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid are all but gone.

But make no mistake about it, the 2010-11 season was a success for the Gamecock women's basketball team. One need only to look at the last year to draw that conclusion.

On March 31st, 2010, a visibly upset Dawn Staley met with the media to discuss the shocking news that Kelsey Bone - arguably the biggest recruit in the history of the program - had decided to leave the Gamecock program after her freshman year to return home to Texas, where she eventually decided to enroll at Texas A&M.

"I am confident that our program will continue to grow in her (Bone) absence as we constantly strive to bring quality players and people into the Gamecock family, beginning with the outstanding group of players committed to join us next season," Staley said, flanked by a somber - yet united - basketball team.

Bone, a 6'5 center, left a huge void - literally - in the Carolina post. One of the players expected to help fill that void was a player that entered the Gamecock program in a unique situation. Kayla Brewer - who was supposed to only be a senior in high school - graduated a year early and signed to play with Staley's program. Brewer was a 6'0 forward that played much bigger than her size would indicate in high school.

On December 10th, 2010, Staley sent out a release that Brewer had decided to leave the program after just eight games. Brewer played in seven of the eight contests, averaging 14 minutes, but struggled as she averaged a little over one point and three rebounds per game.

The losses of Bone and Brewer left the Gamecocks with just four players over 6-0 and none over 6-1. One of the four players was 6-0 guard Marah Strickland, leaving the team with just three post players in an SEC Conference that relies on height. That often left Courtney Newton, a 5-10 guard, routinely guarding the opponent's biggest players who were often twice the size of Newton.

If that wasn't enough issues to overcome, Staley faced the first month of the season without her team's leading scorer. Valerie Nainima, a senior guard who led the team in scoring in the 2009-10 season with 17 points per game, tore her ACL in a pick-up game over the summer and underwent surgery on August 6th, 2010. Nainima returned to action in a 77-63 win over NC State on December 12th - just two days after Brewer left the program - scoring eight points in 12 minutes, including 2-of-3 from behind the arc. Still, Nainima didn't appear to be back to form until the end of the season. Nainima only averaged six points this season, 11 less than last season.

Despite those issues - along with the suspension and eventual dismissal of Samone Kennedy and suspension of Stirckland - Carolina found themselves at 16-11 and 8-6 in the SEC entering that final week of the season. Winning just one of those final two games would have guaranteed Staley's first winning record in the SEC since being hired, and almost a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. Instead, Carolina finished with a 17-14 record after going 1-1 in the SEC Tournament and will almost be guaranteed at least one home game - and perhaps the entire tournament - in the WNIT that starts this week. The WNIT selections will be announced late Monday night after the NCAA Tournament field is announced at 7:00 P.M.

Though disappointed that they didn't achieve the ultimate goal of making the NCAA Tournament, the Gamecocks have continued to improve in the standings in each of Staley's three years at the school. In Staley's first season, a struggling Gamecock team finished 10-18 and 2-12 in SEC play. In year two, Carolina improved to finish at 14-15 and 7-9 in the SEC. Now, the Gamecocks will be playing in the postseason for the first time in the Staley era, something no one would have predicted four months ago.

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