WBB: Dreams coming true for five seniors

As kids on the playground, you pretend to play in it. As high school basketball players, you dream about it. As college basketball players it is your goal. For five South Carolina players it took an entire career, but they finally made it. On Saturday morning, the five Gamecock seniors take the court with their teammates in the NCAA Tournament to face Eastern Michigan.

It's been a long road. It took four years – five in the case of Courtney Newton – for the seniors on South Carolina women's basketball team to get to the NCAA Tournament. On Saturday morning their dreams will come true when they take to the court inside Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana for the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

"I want to thank our seniors," Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said following the team's selection Monday night. "All have been here for a very long time. They have seen the 10-18 season to winning over 20 games this season. They've led our basketball team both on and off the court and set the example for what it is to be a student-athlete at the University of South Carolina."

For Newton it was the longest path imaginable. It's nothing short of awe-inspiring. Newton suffered a torn ACL in her right knee during her junior season of high school. Newton recovered for her senior season, averaging nearly 25 points per game, enough to catch the attention of then-South Carolina coach Susan Walvius.

Newton's freshman season ended during the fifth game of the season. During a 91-58 to Illinois, Newton went down with another torn ACL, this time in her left knee. Two knees, two ACL injuries.

Newton made it through her redshirt freshman year – the first under Staley – and saw her play in 22 games, earning eight starts. After playing in three games in her redshirt sophomore year, Newton went down yet again with a tear in her right ACL. As if that wasn't enough, doctors told Newton on the day of the surgery that she also had to have hip surgery.

That's five years, four different surgeries. That's enough for anyone to give up. Not for Courtney Newton.

She came back last season, playing in a career-high 29 games, starting the last 16. This season, Newton has played in 29 games, starting 27.

Why come back? South Carolina has played 154 games since Newton's career began. Newton has played in 88. Game 155 is the reason why Newton came back for her fifth year.

"I took my fifth year for this reason," Newton said. "I wanted to make the NCAA's and I believed that this team could. Just to go through so much with this team for the last five years, this is a dream come true for sure."

It took less than 15 minutes of Monday's selection show for the Gamecocks to know where they were heading. The room erupted with cheering and Newton's dream came true.

"The main thing is that we were there," Newton said. "In the years before there was no excitement to watch it because there wasn't a big chance to get there. This year knowing that we were getting in and just being able to sit and watch together was our dream. For us to go early we were kind of shocked, but it was kind of good because we didn't want to sit there too long."

While Newton's path was certainly more difficult than the rest, Staley's first recruiting class of La'Keisha Sutton and Charenee Stephens – Ebony Wilson transferred in the following season – have had a difficult college career as well. Both endured the 10-18 season in Staley's first year and have emerged as leaders on the court over the course of their careers.

"It's been tough," Stephens said. "We have seen those seasons. We are a hard-working team and to see that work go in vain and to not get those wins all the time it does put a damper on things. At the same time this is what we worked for."

Sutton always kept a more positive outlook, knowing it was just a matter of time when the Gamecocks were called on Selection Monday.

"Honestly, I always knew this day would come," Sutton said. "I believed in my team since day one. It was just a matter of coming together and learning how to win and playing together. We went through a lot of adversity and I think that's what helped us come together to have a pretty successful year."

There has certainly been plenty of adversity for this group to overcome. In Staley's second season, she landed a program-changing recruit when the number two player in the nation, Kelsey Bone, chose to come to Carolina. A year later, she was gone. Behind Staley at her press conference was the rest of the team. United as one, they believed.

"It took a while for her to get the pieces that she needed to get in here for our team to be complete, but throughout these last few years we've really started to believe in what she was doing so I think that's why we're here now," Newton said.

Despite the loss of Bone (and eventual loss of Kayla Brewer) the Gamecocks continued to build and made the WNIT last season. Coach Staley has always preached improvement every season. That's what the team did.

"We got together this summer and said we were going to make the tournament and we did," Sutton said.

Markeshia Grant – who joined the program last year – has been a key weapon on both ends of the court to help put the team over the top.

"It means a lot that I could be a part of helping the team that has been here four years get to the tournament," Grant said.

As 7:00 neared on Monday, the Frank McGuire room inside the Colonial Life Arena began to fill up as a crowd near 500 gathered to share the moment with the team.

"It just shows that people are supportive and we put a product out on the floor that people can be proud of and they can come and cheer for us," Stephens said.

As South Carolina popped up on the screen as the number five seed in the Fresno Regional, the journey reached a new level.

"I think I was about to tear up a little bit, but I had to keep my composure," Sutton said. "We've been through so much as a team and program in the last three or four years so I'm very excited and happy for my team."

Dreams do come true.

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