NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- No. 25 USC dominated Alabama for a third time this season essentially with one arm tied behind its back.
None of the top-five leading Gamecocks in playing time -- La’Keisha Sutton, Markeshia Grant, Ieasia Walker, Charenee Stephens and Ashley Bruner -- had more than 21 minutes on the court in the 57-38 opening SEC tournament win on Thursday.
That’s good news for head coach Dawn Staley, who got to rest her stars for tournament’s games on consecutive days.
History is not kind to teams that don’t get a first-round bye in the SEC tournament.
Of the 80 teams that have reached the semifinals since the league last expanded in 1991-92, just 19 were seeded fifth through 12th.
And just five of those teams reached the finals.
But Walker noted before the Gamecocks left for Nashville that they beat Mississippi in the 2011 tournament, a year after the Rebels sent USC home, and that they could return the favor to Georgia this year, which beat South Carolina in last year’s quarterfinals in a 66-34 rout.
USC face the No. 16 Bulldogs in the quarterfinals at 10 p.m. tonight. The winner plays the winner of the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Step forward: Aleighsa Welch said she is operating about 75 percent with her sprained right knee. In her first action in two games, the freshman forward didn’t score but she grabbed a team-high tying five rebounds in just nine minutes on the court.
USC’s leading rebounder was up to speed when she first got on the court but she tired and became sore after the adrenaline wore off.
“This was the kind of game where I could be a little more patient with myself and they could be a little more patient with me,” Welch said. “Throughout the rest of the tournament, it’s going to be a little bit of a different atmosphere and a different challenge for us.”
Nothing’s free: Bruner -- USC’s effervescent junior forward -- has really struggled at the free-throw line this year. She was a 49.2 percent shooter after her first two years, but she has shot 38 percent during this season with some of her attempts straying wide of the basket.
Bruner said she has been shaky at the line with the words, “Don’t air ball, don’t air ball” and “Just hit the rim” going through her head.
She’s tried standing back farther from the free-throw line, shooting with no dribbles and shooting after eight dribbles.
But Bruner seems to have found a small groove in a new technique. She hit four of her past six attempts while looking more comfortable at the line.
Bruner starts at the three-point line, takes four steps to the foul line, looks at the rim and dribbles three times slowly and shoots while never taking her eyes off the rim.
“It’s been working,” she said. “I like it.”
Tip-ins: South Carolina is now 5-20 all-time in the SEC tournament. The Gamecocks have never reached the semifinals. ... Staley is 2-3 in the tournament. The 38 points USC allowed were its lowest in a SEC tournament game -- besting the previous record of 49 in a loss to Mississippi State in 2009. The win was South Carolina’s first over Alabama in the tournament. The Gamecocks’ 22 points off turnovers against Alabama was their high in a SEC game this year. ... Sutton's seven free-throws made on Thursday were her season high.
Quotable: “The coaches are always telling me when I go in, ‘Be calm.’ So as soon as I hit the floor, I took a deep breath,” USC walk-on Imani Sellers, a pre-med student who scored a career-high six points in the win over Alabama. The junior guard came into the game with nine points all season.