Expectations are once again high as South Carolina plays in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament later this week as the No. 1 overall seed, but it wasn’t that long ago that getting back to the NCAA Tournament was something new for the program. The Gamecocks made their first NCAA Tournament appearance under Dawn Staley in her fourth season at South Carolina in 2011-2012 after the program hadn’t been to the tournament since 2003.
“Coming in, we just knew what Coach Staley’s vision for the program was, and looking at it now, we were that foundational piece,” said Markeshia Grant, a senior guard in 2011-2012, who is now an entrepreneur and is heavily involved in personal development, life skills and team development. “You could see it building when we beat North Carolina at the tournament in Myrtle Beach and when we beat Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena. We were that steppingstone for the program, and I think it helped in getting recruits that would eventually help us with the ultimate goal of winning a national championship.”
“There’s definitely a sense of pride in knowing that it’s something we were a part of,” said Courtney Newton, who was a senior forward in 2012 and is now a mother of two and the head basketball coach at Flowery Branch High School in Georgia. “Coach Staley came in and told us to trust the process, and even though the first four years were difficult, we got better each year. That senior group had been through that process with her and trusted her. The teams they have had since that have done the same thing, and it’s been fun to watch.”
“Just seeing the hard work and knowing that if you’re disciplined, anything can happen, that’s what stands out about our team,” said Ieasia Walker, who was a junior point guard on the 2011-2012 team and is currently a strength and conditioning coach and assistant women’s basketball coach at Tuskegee University. “That year, we definitely left it all out there. We squeezed all the juice out of everything we had. We left it all out there.”
“When people bring it up, it’s exciting because we get to relive that,” said Ashley Bruner, who was a junior forward on the Sweet 16 team and is now also an assistant coach at Tuskegee. “Ieasia and I talk about it all the time now and how far the program has come. It’s exciting.”
Having won seven SEC Regular Season Championships and seven SEC Tournament Championships since the 2013-2014 season as well as reaching the NCAA Tournament every year since 2012, highlighted by National Championships in 2017 and 2022 and additional Final Four appearances in 2015 and 2021, the deep runs in the postseason have become the expectation. The Gamecocks were also the No. 1 team in the nation in 2020 after winning both SEC titles, but the NCAA Tournament was cancelled due to the pandemic. The 2011-2012 season and run to the Sweet 16 set the table for what Staley was building.
“There was a lot of mental toughness in that group. We thought, we could do this, and we can play with anybody.”
La’Keisha Sutton and Markeshia Grant
“It happened quick after we left!” Bruner said. “They started winning conference championships. I can’t say that I expected national championships, but I knew when we were getting players like Tiffany Mitchell, Khadijah Sessions, and Alaina Coates, I started wondering how far we could really go!”
“It was the way Coach Staley spoke when she first got to South Carolina,” Walker said. “Regardless of where we were picked or who we had in terms of personnel, she never lowered her expectations. We were going to do things the right way, bring the right people in, and it was always, ‘we’re going to win the national championship.’ With her repeatedly saying that, we believed it. When you have leadership that never wavers about being the best, people are attracted to that. It was just a matter of time. I’m just so proud to see where it’s at now.”
“She said from day one that she had expectations for the program to be on that level,” Newton said. “I knew they would get there at some point. People want to play for her and be able to be around the people she has in the program. She makes it more than just about basketball.”
The 2011-2012 Gamecocks were picked to finish eighth out of (then) 12 teams in the SEC Preseason Poll and didn’t have a single player on the preseason all-conference first or second team. Heck, South Carolina’s three main forwards were undersized with senior Charenee Stephens, Bruner, and freshman Aleighsa Welch checking in at just six feet tall. The guard trio of Grant, Walker, and senior Le’Keisha Sutton were the top three scorers on the team.
“I think we had a lot of grit,” Walker said. “We were there all of the previous summer with (former strength and conditioning) Coach Jon (Vaden), hitting the weight room, and then focusing on the basics that summer. We were undersized at the post position, but we just locked into what we were good at. We stayed disciplined, and that stayed with us all year. It started with that grit in the summertime.”
“You have to start with the leadership of the team and the culture that was created,” Grant said. “We had chemistry on and off the court.”
“We had some young kids that were really talented, and we had a group of seniors that had played for Coach for a couple of years that had experienced the ups and downs,” Newton said. “We had that fire and desire to win. For me, it was my last year and had gone through a lot. We just gave our all every day.”
“We just thought we weren’t going to let anyone bully us, no matter how tall or how short we are,” Bruner said. “We used our IQ. We had the mentality that they had to guard us too! We had the mindset that we were here for a reason.”
The Gamecocks went 25-10 overall in 2011-2012, with half of those losses coming by single digits. South Carolina finished tied for fourth in the SEC at 10-6, highlighted by the program’s first ever win at Tennessee, which was still coached be the legendary Pat Summitt, led by Markeshia Grant’s 27 points and seven three-pointers.
“When I think about that game, there were so many important elements leading up to it,” Grant said. “(Football) Coach Steve Spurrier was at the game, and that was some big support! (Dawn Staley’s former coach at Virginia) Debbie Ryan was there as well, and she spoke to us. We just believed in ourselves. We had something to prove because we didn’t have any All-Americans, and they had several. For myself, it was about Keisha and Ieasia believing in me and passing me the ball when it came down to hitting threes. It was a total team effort.”
“It was huge,” Bruner said. “We had never won up there. In the moment, it was hard because I had to guard Glory Johnson who was around 6’4” and super-athletic. I remember I’m the one who fouled her out of the game. I remember Markeshia making all those threes, and us not backing down.”
“I remember pretty much everything about that game,” Newton said. “Any game we went into, Coach was confident, and we prepared to win. It was special, especially for a group that had experienced a lot of losses in the previous years but trusted Coach and stayed with it.”
“The biggest turning point of the season was when we beat Tennessee, and after that, our confidence just continued to swell,” Walker said. “We often talk about that game. Everyone was locked into the game plan. There was no doubt in that locker room at all. Markeshia got national player of the week after hitting seven threes. I didn’t have any turnovers, and Coach Staley said I played a great game. Beating them did something for our confidence.”
After playing in the WNIT the year before, the Gamecocks were thrilled to hear their name called for the NCAA Tournament for which they would travel to West Lafayette, Indiana. South Carolina was ranked No. 25 nationally and opened the tournament with an 80-48 thumping of Eastern Michigan. Then the Gamecocks had to face 13th ranked Purdue on its home floor, but the Gamecocks were unfazed, coming out with the 72-61 victory to advance to the Sweet 16.
“We had the watch party, and the whole night you just wanted to see your name up there,” Newton said. “That moment was something we had always dreamed of, and I didn’t know if I would get to see that. We went in there with a mission to not just be there, but to win a game or two. I remember that game and practice before the Purdue game. You could just feel the intensity in practices. Playing in the SEC, you’re prepared for anybody. When you haven’t been there and then you get there, there is just a different sense of intensity and want. We were in this little bitty locker room afterwards, and I just remember all of us cheering after that win.”
“I knew it was a big deal, but I don’t think I knew it had been about 10 years since the team had been there,” Bruner said. “As a group we went into it prepared. There was a lot of mental toughness in that group. We thought, we could do this, and we can play with anybody. I remember we weren’t supposed to win that (Purdue) game, but the type of basketball we played, they weren’t ready for. We were small and undersized, but we had to use our IQ.”
“I think our theme that year was ‘I believe,’” Walker said. “We put a lot of effort into it to get into the NCAA. The hard work paid off. I remember preparing for the Purdue game. We just went out and gave all that we had and left it all out on the floor. I remember being happy that we won and being happy for our seniors knowing that I gave them everything I had.”
“I remember it was very hot in that building!” Grant said. “We were just on a journey of becoming what we were supposed to be.”
Now the former Gamecocks are looking forward to watching the latest Garnet and Black team go for another run in the postseason.
“I get to brag on Coach Staley and the girls a lot!” Bruner said. “I tell people they’re great athletes, but they’re even better people. My whole coaching style sticks to that same type of coaching. I always say things that Coach Staley always said to us, like don’t ever get too high or too low, and keep the main thing, the main thing.”
“I’m excited to see us go for the perfect season,” Grant said. “I don’t know if that was a goal of theirs in the beginning of the season, but it would be poetic because our first national championship was won in Dallas, and it would be a perfect journey back to Dallas again this year.”