By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Plain and simple, Markeshia Grant wanted to get better.
South Carolina’s 5-foot-6 point guard had been an All-America performer at the College of Central Florida where she ranked in the top-20 nationally among all junior college players in assists per game and steals per game, while also leading her team with 17.7 points per game.
But when she wasn’t able to carry over that type of success when she transferred to the Gamecocks last season, she knew the adjustment was going to be harder than she expected. Grant began to find her touch late in the season, as the team’s top scorer in the postseason with 12.3 points per game during that two-game stretch in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, but she knew she had to commit herself to improving over the summer.
That’s when she decided to try another college. This type of summer school was targeted specifically for point guards across the country and focused on both the mental and physical skills necessary to play the position at the highest level.
It was just what she needed.
“Last year, it was tough coming in and just learning everything,” Grant said. “I wanted to get better. I really challenged myself and went to point guard college this summer. It really helped me with understanding the thinking part of the game. That was a big part of my improvement coming into this year, but also Coach [Dawn] Staley challenged me to improve my three-point percentage.”
Grant has always had skills, there’s no question about it. But, this summer, she gained a greater understanding for how the cerebral aspect of the game is just as critical to success.
“You have to think a lot in the game of basketball,” Grant said. “I just learned how to think ahead and how to be patient and confident in what I was doing.”
The hard work paid off and head coach Dawn Staley has taken notice.
Grant has been rewarded with a starting nod in each of her team’s games this season, leading her team in scoring with 11.0 points per game and ranking second in the SEC (conference games only) in three-pointers made per game. She has been her team’s top scorer seven times and has scored in double-figures on 12 occasions, including four 20-point performances.
Still, with all of Grant’s success, she has played under the radar for most of the season. Her name hardly comes up in the media when the top players are discussed. But, as far as Grant is concerned, that’s just fine with her.
“I really don’t pay attention to the statistics and the honors,” she said. “I just want to go out and play hard and win. As far as being underrated, if that’s how people see me, that’s cool. I just want to go out and play my hardest every night.”
It’s true, the star of South Carolina’s team is incredibly humble and fiercely team-oriented. For the Gamecocks who came up just short of an NCAA Tournament appearance last season, the team feels added motivation and desire to reach the sport’s Big Dance this year.
“Early in the season, we just stressed our defense,” Grant said. “That was a strong point for us last year, but this year, we are quicker and just buying into the system and trusting the process more. We are more defensive-minded. That has been a big part of our success, but also, we want to be recognized nationally as a good team.”
The Gamecocks have responded, stringing together an 18-6 overall record with a 7-4 Southeastern Conference mark headed into Sunday’s 5 p.m. ET match-up with Florida, which will air live on ESPN2.
As committed as Grant is to putting South Carolina back on the map, she is equally as disinterested in personal honors. Still, when she was named the U.S. Basketball Writers Association National Player of the Week this past Monday, it was recognition that didn’t go unnoticed. Not for what it means to her, but for what it means to the program.
“It meant a lot,” Grant said. “I did some research on it after I found out and I was one of the first to ever get it at South Carolina. That says something really big about my teammates and the coaching staff.”
Grant’s loyalty to her teammates is one of the main cornerstone’s of Staley’s program.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from her is absolutely loyalty,” Grant said of her coach. “She stresses loyalty and trusting her and what she tells us. She has played at every level and really knows the game.”
So does Grant, who hopes her senior season will be one of the best in program history.
Characteristically, all she wants to do is continue to get better.
“Our goal is to win the SEC Championship, get a berth in the NCAA Tournament and win some games in the NCAA Tournament,” Grant said. “Individually, all I want to do is just help the team win.”
Who: South Carolina (18-6, 7-4 SEC) vs. Florida (16-8, 6-5 SEC)
When: Sunday, February 12, 2012 – 5 p.m. ET
All-Time Series: Florida leads 20-9
South Carolina Storyline:
The Gamecocks, who are looking to rebound from a loss at Arkansas this past Thursday night, have won seven SEC games for just the seventh time in their 21 years in the league … Interestingly enough three of those seven-win conference slates have come under head coach Dawn Staley … South Carolina leads the SEC in scoring defense, holding the opposition to an average of just 48.9 points per game over the course of the year … The Gamecocks are also leading the league when it comes to limiting their opposition behind the arc, as opponents are shooting just over 20 percent from the three-point arc against South Carolina … A win on Saturday would give South Carolina 19 overall wins for the first time since the 2002-03 team finished with a 23-8 ledger … The Gamecocks have the opportunity to sweep the season series with Florida for the first time ever after a 49-44 victory in Gainesville on Jan. 8 … South Carolina ranks 25th nationally and third in the SEC with a +4.8 turnover margin, having forced 20 or more turnovers in 11 of its 24 games this season … Staley is 60-53 in her fourth season at the helm of the Gamecocks program.