COLUMBIA -- The history that South Carolina's women's basketball team made last Thursday at Tennessee began, in large part, last summer on the playgrounds of Tampa, Fla.
It was there, while spending time back home, that senior guard Markeshia Grant shot 500 3-pointers a day, more than she ever shot before, and played against her male friends so she could face tougher competition.
USC coach Dawn Staley challenged Grant after last season to boost her 3-point percentage above 40 in her senior year, her second with the Gamecocks after transferring from junior college. Though Grant shot just 28.8 percent on 3s last season, Staley saw potential in her quick release and knew that, eventually, a player of Grant's stature -- 5-6 and slender -- would need to develop into a better outside shooter.
"I didn't think she could handle driving to the basket for 40 minutes," Staley said.
Grant hasn't quite reached the
40-percent mark on 3s. She is at 33 percent and has attempted 115 -- 32 more than anybody else on the team. But her 3-point shooting never looked sharper than it did at Tennessee. She hit 7 of 12 (three more than her previous career high for makes) and scored a career-best 27 points as the Gamecocks beat No. 8 Tennessee, 64-60.
USC had lost 40 straight games to Tennessee dating to 1980 and never beat the Volunteers in Knoxville. The Gamecocks last beat a top-10 team in 2002 -- yet another piece of history for fourth-year coach Dawn Staley's team, which is 18-5 and 7-3 in the Southeastern Conference entering tonight's game at Arkansas, its first since the Tennessee win.
The Gamecocks are ranked again at No. 24. Barring a collapse in their final six games, including one matchup each with No. 7 Kentucky and No. 21 Georgia, they will finish with a winning SEC record and make the NCAA tournament. They haven't done either since 2002-03.
"I think we're in a much better place than we ever have been," Staley said of USC's progress during her tenure. "We're making a strong, strong push (for the NCAA tournament). But if we lose our last six regular season games, it would be hard for anybody to make a case for us."
If Grant keeps shooting this well, it would be hard to imagine that happening.
Last month, freshman forward and No. 3 scorer Aleighsa Welch of Goose Creek High School scored in double figures in five of six games. But in the three since, she hasn't scored more than six points. Grant, who leads USC with 11 points per game, shot better in those three games (all wins) than she had been -- a combined 14 of 26 on 3s, compared to 7 of 45 in the previous nine games.
In those nine games, she hit double figures just four times. Then she scored 20 and 15 before dropping 27 on Tennessee -- a performance that earned her National Player of the Week honors from the United States Basketball Writers Association. The night so exhausted Grant that she fell asleep at home soon after the laughter-filled team bus returned from Knoxville at 11:30 p.m.
"It was very emotional for everybody involved," she said.
While Grant said the players have "moved on" from the win, Staley said her staff spent the past week "scratching and clawing" to emphasize the importance of leaving it behind. So she felt relieved that the Gamecocks got a week between the Tennessee win and their next game.
"I think we need to enjoy the journey," Staley said. "But I think we also have to be big girls and turn the page. I don't know if we had the energy to prep for another team (immediately). They're still pretty hyper about that game."