March 17, 2005
Columbia, S.C. - When dealing with a young team going up against competition from the most difficult conference in America night in and night out, it's important to see the big picture. It's not always about wins and losses, rather, it's about whether or not the program is growing and if the team is learning what it takes to win and then applying what it has learned in a game setting.
Such was the case for the South Carolina women's basketball team in 2004-05. Fielding a 12-player roster dominated by 11 players who were either freshmen or sophomores, the Gamecocks finished the year with an 8-21 record and a 2-12 mark in Southeastern Conference play.
"If you put a football team of freshmen and sophomores out there in the SEC, it's going to get beaten," Head Coach Susan Walvius said. "If you put a men's basketball team of freshmen and sophomores out there in the SEC, it's going to get beaten. It's the same in women's basketball. We knew this was going to be a rebuilding year going in, but our team took a lot of good strides as the year went on."
At no point did the Gamecocks look better than at the end of the season, when they claimed back-to-back wins over Alabama and Kentucky. Making those two wins all the more remarkable was the fact that the Gamecocks were without the services of team captain and leading scorer Lauren Simms for both those contests, as Simms tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in the early moments against the Crimson Tide. With Simms out, the rest of the team came together, as four players scored in double figures. Stacy Booker's 19 points and nine rebounds led the way for Carolina in its 66-57 win.
In the next game, the Gamecocks rode the performance of sophomore Iva Sliskovic, who set a Colonial Center record by converting on a perfect 8-of-8 from the field and scoring 16 points. Sliskovic also grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds to spark a 60-47 win over Kentucky. Since arriving on campus, Sliskovic has established herself as one of the team's most important players, evidenced by the fact that in the 22 games in her career in which she scored in double figures, the Gamecocks have compiled a 12-10 record. In contrast, when Sliskovic is held to single-digits, the team is 6-29.
With two consecutive SEC wins to their credit, the Gamecocks then traveled to Oxford, Miss., shortly after receiving the devastating news of the death of starting point guard Lea Fabbri's father after a bout with cancer. Fabbri left that same day to be with her family in Croatia after the passing of her father and missed the remainder of the season.
Playing an NCAA Tournament-bound Ole Miss squad on the road without the starting backcourt duo of Simms and Fabbri, Carolina still managed to continue playing well, holding an improbable 47-46 lead with five minutes remaining in the contest before the Lady Rebels were able to rally and go on to an emotional 57-51 win.
The same two teams met again in the first round of the SEC Tournament in Greenville, with the game once again not being decided until the final moments. After Ole Miss built its lead to 11 points (34-23) four minutes into the second half, the Gamecocks worked to close the gap. Melanie Johnson drained a pair of free throws at the 8:02 mark to knot the game at 40 apiece. Ilona Burgrova nailed two more to give the Gamecocks a 42-40 lead.
From there, it was seesaw battle, and like the previous contest in Oxford, this one went down to the wire.
A deep three-pointer by Gamecock sophomore Angela Hunter put USC on top 50-49 with 2:46 to go. With 46 seconds to play, first-team All-SEC selection Armintie Price scored on a putback to regain the lead for the Rebels. After failing to score on its next possession, USC was forced to foul and put Price on the foul line. She missed both tries, but Ole Miss grabbed the rebound and called timeout with 16.8 seconds to play. The Gamecocks nearly came up with the steal, but had to foul Price again. She missed the first, but knocked down the second try to make it 52-50.
On the next trip down court, Booker missed a driving jumper, but Hunter corralled the rebound and went back up for a shot, attempting to draw the foul. No foul was called and USC had to foul again. Lady Rebel Ellen Buchanan hit one of two to make it, 53-50. With 2.2 seconds left, Carolina failed to get a shot off before the final horn sounded and the season came to an end.
"One of the things you come across when you have a young team is that they don't have the sweat equity built into the program," Walvius said. "Our players now have that. They are now South Carolina basketball, where before they were just getting their feet wet. As the year went on, they learned the value of each possession. They have a much greater understanding of what it takes to win in this league."
If the team gained its sweat equity this year, it will be able to look back on the middle portion of the schedule in which it learned things the hard way.
The Gamecocks lost nine consecutive games from Jan. 16 through Feb. 17, but continued to show flashes of potential.
"If you look back at that stretch, there were games where we were right there," Walvius said. "We played very well and held leads on teams like Tennessee and Florida but let them slip away. When we struggled like that and lost some of those games, it was important that we stayed positive and focused on where we wanted to go as a program. We gained a lot of experience during that stretch. The theme of the season seemed to be that we were in a position to win games, but didn't. This team showed it can compete in the SEC."
A pair of bright spots for Carolina was the play of Stacy Booker and Melanie Johnson. Booker, who entered the season averaging 2.0 points per game for her career, finished her sophomore campaign ranking second on the team with an 8.5 points-per-game average. Booker became particularly valuable late in the season, when she was forced to play out of position with Simms and Fabbri sidelined and averaged 37.3 minutes played per game in the team's last six contests.
As for Johnson, the redshirt freshman emerged as one of the better pure athletes in the league. Johnson ranked among the SEC leaders with six double-doubles on the year.
Along with redshirt freshman Lakesha Tolliver and freshman Ilona Burgrova, Johnson spearheaded one of the best shot-blocking units in the conference. As a team, South Carolina smashed the existing school record by blocking 176 shots this year. To put that figure into perspective, the previous single-season school record was 115. Johnson blocked 54 shots, a mark that ranks second on the school's single-season list, while Tolliver set a new Carolina freshman record with 42 blocks. The team's shot-blocking prowess was one of the keys to its solid defense.
"One of the things that this team really grasped was the concept of taking away individual success," Walvius said. "Through film work, our players could see who they were guarding and what their tendencies were, then worked to take that away. Iva Sliskovic was excellent when it came to taking away a player's strengths and forcing that player out of her rhythm. She really is an unbelievable defender. We consistently held teams under their scoring averages, and if we can grow offensively and in our team concepts, this team can accomplish a lot, and we are excited about that."
With every player on the roster still with eligibility remaining, the Gamecocks now have the off-season to set the tone for next year, and Walvius said there are several things that the team will focus on.
"Every player on this team has individual areas to improve on that will help the team get better, but one of the main areas we need to address is our strength and in particular, our upper-body strength," Walvius said. "I really like our team and I believe in where we are going. This team has a good work ethic and we don't have individuals that drain the energy of the group. That is an important quality and I am excited to watch this team continue to develop."
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