SOUTH CAROLINA 65, NO. 24 VANDERBILT 55

COLUMBIA -- The athleticism was obvious. So was the size, the ability to get to the basket and the knack for rebounding in traffic. But for as often as South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley watched Aleighsa Welch during the recruiting process, Staley couldn't answer one question for sure: How would Welch respond when Staley tried to tweak her game?

Much better than even Staley expected, as it turns out. The Gamecocks are now on the verge of being ranked for the first time since March 2003 because of Thursday's 65-55 home win over No. 24 Vanderbilt -- in which Welch announced her presence to the Southeastern Conference.

A freshman forward from Goose Creek High School, Welch came off the bench, as usual, and led USC with a season-best 19 points. She also grabbed seven rebounds, six offensive.

Thanks largely to a deeper bench, the Gamecocks (13-2, 2-0 SEC) are off to their best start since 2002-03, when they began 13-2, and are 2-0 in the league for the first time since 2001-02. Both of those teams made the NCAA tournament, and the 2001-02 squad advanced to the Elite Eight.

If these players keep performing like this, they'll make the tournament for the first time since 2003. It would be just their latest sign of progress under Staley, who is in her fourth season.

Her records in the first three: 10-18, 14-15 and 18-15, including 2-12, 7-9 and 8-8 in the SEC. Against ranked teams, she went 0-7, 3-9 and 2-6. This year's team is already 2-1 against the top 25, having won by 31 points over No. 18 North Carolina, which beat USC by 24 last year. Win Sunday at Florida, and the Gamecocks will almost certainly crack the top 25.

"I'm happy for our players, because they've been on the other end of it," Staley said. "I'm going to enjoy the journey. But it's not going to lead to us being complacent."

Landing Welch could wind up being a big part of accomplishing that goal. Last year's South Carolina Miss Basketball and Staley's first in-state recruit, Welch entered Thursday third on the team with 8.1 points per game and tied for the team lead with 6.2 rebounds, despite playing just 18.6 minutes per game. (She played 23 on Thursday.)

When Staley looked at her roster before the season, she wondered how she would find enough minutes for all the players worthy of them -- a good problem to have. She knew Welch would play, but she needed Welch to earn that time by becoming a purer post player, with a go-to move, than she was in high school, when, "the coach just kind of gives you the ball and tells you, 'Make something happen,' " Welch said.

Said Staley: "I didn't think she could come in and have this immediate of an effect in long stretches. There's probably only once this year where she looked like a freshman. She's smart. I didn't know how smart of a player she was. Anything we give her, she's able to pick it up, and she plays it as if it's second nature to her."

Challenges remain, of course. Can Welch keep this up? How will the Gamecocks respond, after trips to Florida and LSU, to their next home game: Jan. 15 against No. 11 Kentucky?

But for now, there are good vibes around this team, which won by 10 on Thursday despite leading scorer Markeshia Grant scoring just six points -- five below her average.

That the bench accounted for those points marked growth for Staley's program. So, too, did the Gamecocks putting away Vanderbilt, which won the teams' last game, last year in Columbia, by 14 points in overtime after USC led by nine with 5:25 left.

"We reminded them that we were in that position," Staley said. "And they brought it on home."