COLUMBIA -- Scores of college and professional basketball teams around the country come up with catchy slogans each year to help sell tickets -- and, really, their team.
In Dawn Staley's third season at South Carolina, the Gamecocks' marketing motto was "We Rise." Seems to fit, considering USC managed to reach the postseason for the first time in Staley's coaching tenure here despite a number of defections and bouts with adversity.
The Gamecocks (17-14) begin play today in the 64-team Women's National Invitation Tournament against Appalachian State (25-6). Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena.
"We've had people leave the program. We've had people step away. We've had a number of things happen to us this year," Staley said. "I'm very happy our team stuck together and have an opportunity to play.
"We could have very easily broken down and had a little pity party, but this team -- we went through a little bit of that last year, and we're far better. Our mentalities are a lot better. Our approach is a lot better."
The program got slugged in April when top-flight recruit and premier post player Kelsey Bone decided to transfer, returning home to Texas. Kayla Brewer was the player brought in to help replace Bone, but she abruptly transferred in December.
Additionally, Staley dismissed senior Samone Kennedy late in the season for undisclosed reasons.
Despite all that, USC managed to come together during the conference season -- an 8-8 run through the SEC.
"I think it's something to be proud of," senior forward Jewel May said. "I think it says something about who we are as a team. We obviously had a few problems, but every team has problems. We overcame those things and now we're here. We just want to win some games."
Staley believed .500 in the SEC would be enough to get the Gamecocks into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. However, USC came up just short. Consecutive overtime losses to LSU and Vanderbilt to end the regular season were surely damaging. The Gamecocks controlled that home game against Vandy, only to see the lead evaporate. An earlier home loss to Florida also hurt South Carolina's resume.
"We're definitely motivated," May said. "Obviously we didn't want to be left out of the NCAA tournament, but now we feel like we're playing with a chip on our shoulder. It's like we have something to prove, apparently. We're ready to prove that."
The progress isn't what Staley wanted for her program at this point, but, given all that's happened, the postseason is the postseason. It's a first for the team under the former Olympic gold medalist.
"We're a little bit further along than we were a year ago," Staley said. "Last year, we were sitting back and watching everyone. Now we're partaking a little bit."
Staley's name has been linked to the opening to coach at Virginia, her alma mater, since Debbie Ryan stepped down.
Staley said she's had no contact with the school, other than to speak with Ryan, with whom she's still friends.
"I feel for her. She's a legend leaving the game," Staley said. "Other than that, I've been focused on our team and our opportunity to play in postseason play.
"Some people have had me going to Virginia for a very long time, and that's been the furthest thing from my mind because (Ryan) is my coach."
WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m., Colonial Life Arena, Columbia.
South Carolina (17-14)
HEAD COACH: Dawn Staley (41-47 in third year at South Carolina)
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Ieasia Walker, 5-8, so. (12.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg); La'Keisha Sutton, 5-9, jr. (10.5 ppg, 3.5 apg); G Val Nainima, 5-5, sr. (6.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg).
NOTES: Walker was named an honorable mention All-SEC selection earlier in the day Tuesday. … Sutton has averaged 14.6 points a game in the past five games. … It's unclear whether the Gamecocks host a second game, because of scheduled events in the arena.
Appalachian State (25-6)
HEAD COACH: Darcie Vincent (57-40 in third year at Appalachian State)
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Sam Ramirez, 5-8, sr. (15.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg); F Ashlen Dewart, 6-3, so. (15.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg); F Anna Freeman, 6-0, so. (14.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg).
NOTES: ASU is in the WNIT for the first time since 1987. … The Mountaineers won the Women's Basketball Invitational title in 2010, defeating, among others, Charleston and Charleston Southern.
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