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Oct. 27, 2006

Suiting up in a South Carolina jersey means something, especially if you are a native South Carolinian.

Several members of the Gamecock women’s basketball team (six, to be exact) can attest to the added pride they take in wearing a South Carolina jersey as Palmetto State natives.

“Being a Gamecock means a lot to me,” Redshirt junior and Columbia native Lakesha Tolliver said. We have family and strong community support because people have followed our careers. People enjoy coming to the games and watching us play and it’s really helpful because you always have family at the games backing you up and trying to push you and keep you encouraged. It’s nice having your family around all the time and having the opportunity to sleep in your own bed if you want. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Senior Melanie Johnson, a Barnwell native and preseason all-SEC selection in 2006-07, echoed a similar sentiment.

“There is so much community support and home support,” Johnson said. “I feel like I’m right at home as opposed to playing somewhere else in the country in an arena filled with people I don’t really know. If I went somewhere else, I probably wouldn’t play with as much emotion as I do now, playing in front of people that I know and that I care for. It really means something to me to play in front of my family and friends. You want to make them proud and it’s a big deal to represent South Carolina.”

Tolliver and Johnson figure to be two prominent players as the Gamecocks head into the 2006-07 season. The duo is part of the most experienced team in the Southeastern Conference, as Carolina players have combined to play in a league-high 697 games and make 327 starts entering the 2006-07 season. Carolina returns 97 percent of its scoring, 96 percent of its rebounding, 95 percent of its assists, 94 percent of its blocked shots and 95 percent of its steals from a year ago. The Gamecocks play outstanding defense as well, ranking second nationally in field goal percentage defense and third nationally in blocked shots a year ago.

If 10th-year Head Coach Susan Walvius is to lead her experienced and deep Carolina squad to the NCAA Tournament, she will have to overcome a daunting schedule. The Gamecocks face three of the consensus top four teams in the nation heading into 2006-07, with reigning Big 12 champion Oklahoma and reigning Pac-10 champion Stanford joining SEC giant Tennessee on the slate. Road hurdles against Penn State and NC State are also part of the non-conference slate, with Clemson visiting the Colonial Center on Nov. 20 with hopes of avenging its 77-46 loss to the Gamecocks last season. Needless to say, a powerful slate of SEC opponents also awaits Walvius’ Gamecocks, headlined by the aforementioned Lady Vols, an LSU team that has been to each of the last three Final Fours and a Georgia team that is capable of getting into the title hunt this year.

“Our non-conference schedule is very strong,” Johnson said. “We’ve got Stanford and Oklahoma, who both went far into the NCAA Tournament last year and have All-Americans on their rosters this year. I’m really excited to see where we stand because we have a strong base and a lot of talent on our team and just to see where we match up with these teams is very exciting because I have a lot of confidence in our team. We’re executing in the halfcourt and limiting our turnovers and we are a lot better this year. Our work ethic has improved and there is a lot more attention to detail in practice in terms of valuing each possession and protecting the ball.”

Tolliver said the team’s improved confidence will also be a factor in helping the Gamecocks this season as they push for an NCAA bid.

“Our confidence is higher than it has ever been since I have been here,” Tolliver said. “We believe in ourselves, we believe in each other. We’re stronger. I know that if I pass the ball to any of my teammates, something good is going to happen. Our whole team has that commitment to each other. The whole team trusts each other. We have that kind of bond.”

The confidence and trust that the Gamecocks have developed is something that Walvius looks forward to molding into a very good team this year.

“This team is going to be fun to coach,” Walvius said. “They know our staff and they know each other very well. They chemistry of our team is there and they know the system. We should execute better than we have in the past, we should defend better and we should just be better on so many levels because of experience. You throw in the factor that we should be so much stronger physically and I think you are going to see a team that is fun to watch.”

Not to mention a team that takes pride in suiting up in a South Carolina uniform.