When South Carolina opened the SEC portion of its schedule with losses to LSU and Tennessee, the consensus was the Gamecocks were not ready to challenge for a postseason bid in Dawn Staley's second season.
Thanks to consecutive road wins and a defensive presence that has emerged in the past three weeks, the Gamecocks hold their postseason fortunes in their own hands. They are in a six-way tie for third place in the SEC and begin the closing stretch with two home games - tonight against Mississippi State and Sunday against last-place Arkansas.
USC's victory against then-No. 14 Georgia on Sunday was its first against a top-15 team since Dec. 13, 2005. It was the first road win against a top-15 since the then-No. 9 Gamecocks beat No. 15 Georgia 71-64 in Athens on Jan. 10, 2002.
"What we've done over the past couple of weeks is we outworked people," Staley said. "We're doing the little things for a young team like us (that) when we bear down and want to get some stops, we can get that. Winning the hustle plays, out-scrapping basketball teams, we are finally doing that at the later stages of the game, which are win-or-lose situations and we are coming out on the winning end of the stick."
There is little question that South Carolina (13-10, 6-5) is in the conversation for its first NCAA tournament bid since the end of the 2003 season. These next two games could go a long way in determining how the season plays out.
Mississippi State (15-9, 6-5) is in the mix with the Gamecocks and has a senior-laden team with postseason experience. Arkansas has won once in the SEC and is a game USC can't afford to lose.
"These are imperative that we get these wins," junior forward Jewel May said. "Right now, with the way everything is up in the air in the SEC, we have to secure our spot going into the end of the season so we can have a good seed going into the tournament, which is our goal."
The latest RPI rankings came out Wednesday and USC was 27, ranking behind Tennessee (3), Georgia (16), Kentucky (21), and Vanderbilt (25). The Gamecocks have beaten the Bulldogs and Wildcats once each. They go to Kentucky on February 21 and Georgia comes to Columbia on February 25. USC closes the regular season at Vanderbilt on Feb. 28.
The Gamecocks' strength of schedule is seventh toughest in the country, which helps their case for postseason consideration.
"This is a good opportunity for us to take care of home. If we take care of home and steal a couple of more game, we make a pretty good conversation when it comes to the NCAA committee," Staley said.
The players have been caught up in the conversation as well.
"Right now, we're focused on that bid," leading scorer Valerie Nainima said. "There is talk about it, but we take one game at a time and you never know what can happen. We do feel the confidence level growing. We have to remain humble about the situation and just keeping working hard."
The turnaround can be attributed to stellar defensive play. In six of the past seven games, USC has held its opponents to 60 or fewer points. In the past five, the Gamecocks have allowed 53.8 points per game, 14 below the season average.
"That is what we have to be about," Staley said about the defensive effort. "That's what we should have been about very early on. If we played a little bit of defense early on, I think our record might reflect it now."