Former rivals lead Gamecocks into women's tourney

By Michael Marot

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 16 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Eastern Michigan head coach AnnMarie Gilbert watches her team during basketball practice in West Lafayette, Ind., Friday, March 16, 2012. Eastern Michigan plays South Carolina in an NCAA tournament first-round women's college basketball game on Saturday.

Michael Conroy, Associated Press

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — For South Carolina coaches Dawn Staley and Nikki McCray, this NCAA tournament is like starting over.

Their players don't want to hear any war stories about old tourney appearances or Final Four runs, and they aren't inclined to pull out the YouTube clips to sneak a peek at how the two star players performed back in their glory days.

They're too hip to look back, and besides, Staley wants the Gamecocks worrying about the things they can accomplish in their first tourney appearance since 2003.

"It's been over 20 years, so I think our players are more tangible in the here and now," Staley said Friday. "I want them to experience it for themselves."

Women's basketball historians will view Saturday's game against 12th-seeded Eastern Michigan as a rare treat -- the reunion of two of basketball's greatest stars on a national stage.

After spending most of their college and pro careers chasing elusive championships and mirroring one another's accomplishments, Staley and McCray finally figured out they worked better as a team.

When the two were Olympians at the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics they won the gold medal --both times. Staley went on to win a third gold in 2004 at Athens, the same Olympiad that she carried the American flag for the opening ceremonies.

So when Staley took the Gamecocks' head coaching job in 2008, she immediately asked McCray to join the staff, and nothing's been the same in Columbia since then. South Carolina (23-9) is two wins short of matching the school's single-season victory record. It tied the school mark for most SEC victories in a season (10), reached the SEC tourney finals for the first time and became the fourth team in school history to earn an NCAA bid after making the WNIT last season.

Not surprisingly, the players credit the coaches with turning around the attitude and the program.

"To see where we started out at my freshman year, in particular, the belief that the coaches had in us and the belief my teammates had in me and the belief that we had in each other, we finally got to where we wanted to be since Day 1," senior La'Keisha Sutton said. "I'm just trying to focus on getting a win."

It sure hasn't been an easy path to get here, and the road to the regional semifinals will only prove to be more difficult.

First, South Carolina faces Mid-American Conference champion Eastern Michigan (23-8), which has the nation's No. 2 scorer in Tavelyn James (24.2 points). A victory would set up a contest with either fourth-seeded Purdue (24-8), this weekend's host school, or Summit League champion South Dakota State (24-8). That is Saturday's second game.

The Boilermakers are a postseason regular, while the Jackrabbits are making their fourth straight NCAA appearance.

"I think it's helped us prepare for things like this," South Dakota State coach Aaron Johnston said. "We had all off these questions you've asked. We're well-scripted and prepared in advance, so our fourth year has paid off for us already."

Eastern Michigan has been here only once before, in 2004, and Eagles coach AnnMarie Gilbert doesn't expect her team to be intimidated by the presence of Staley or McCray.

"The great thing for us is ignorance is bliss to young people who aren't old enough to know any of us who were," Gilbert said, drawing laughter. "They didn't know Cynthia Cooper. It was only after (last year's) game that I shared her history. But they all got her autograph and picture after the game. I think they'll be doing with Dawn, and I hope the outcome is the same."

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