Welch lifts Gamecocks to title

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- There's really only one time when South Carolina's Elem Ibiam doesn't fully appreciate the megawatt power source that is fellow senior Aleighsa Welch.

"I'm not her roommate, but we're always in each other's rooms," Ibiam said. "And there are some nights when I'm like, 'It's time to go to sleep,' and she wants to talk all night.

"She always has energy -- always. It's not just on the court. It's when she's in her room, when she's driving to the gas station -- it doesn't matter. And when you're having a bad day, you know she will pick you up."

Throughout this SEC tournament, Welch was able to pick the Gamecocks up whenever they needed a lift, but she never had to carry them. No one player did, which was a key to how South Carolina won the program's first SEC tournament title. Still, there was something special, as usual, about what Welch brought to her team.

Welch was named the tournament MVP after a 62-46 victory over Tennessee on Sunday in the league final. She had 14 points and eight rebounds against the Lady Vols, who were trying to win their program's 18th SEC tourney title.

These two teams played one of the most entertaining games of the regular season: a 71-66 Gamecock win Feb. 23 in Columbia, South Carolina. Welch was a show-stopper that night too, with 19 points and 14 rebounds.

Sunday on a neutral court, the Lady Vols knew they'd have to do a better job on the boards than they did this past month against South Carolina, when they were outrebounded 46-33. And they did, with South Carolina having just a 38-32 edge Sunday. But it wasn't enough.

Is Tennessee still going to be a difficult opponent to face in the NCAA tournament? Absolutely, as the Lady Vols have proven their mettle, even without injured senior center Isabelle Harrison.

South Carolina, though, prevailed with the waves of talent the Gamecocks can keep sending at opponents. Four Gamecocks scored in double figures, with Tiffany Mitchell (17 points), Khadijah Sessions (12) and A'ja Wilson (11) joining Welch.

"They're blue-collar workhorses," Tennessee's Cierra Burdick said. "Then the fact that they can continue to sub in and out and have a revolving door ... I mean, that hurts. I commend South Carolina. They played a great basketball game."

"What I love about Aleighsa is she's more of a leader than a boss. A boss is someone who tells you what to do, but a leader goes through it with you. And teaches you step by step." Freshman A'ja Wilson on senior teammate Aleighsa Welch

It was a landmark win for a program that for many years was close to irrelevant in this powerful conference. That started to change with coach Dawn Staley's arrival in the 2008-09 season. Each year, she has increased the Gamecocks' SEC victory total: from two to seven to eight to 10 to 11 to 14 to 15 this season.

Welch, someone Staley knew could be a pillar for the program, was a key recruit along the way.

Welch is from Goose Creek, South Carolina, a town outside Charleston. She is one of eight Palmetto State natives on the roster. She was instrumental in luring another: the freshman Wilson, who was considered the No. 1 recruit in the country.

Wilson is from Hopkins, South Carolina, a town just outside Columbia, and there was a lot of pressure on her to stay home for college. But when she sat down with Welch on her official recruiting visit, that pressure went away.

"We just had a talk, not really about basketball but life," said Wilson, who was big off the bench with 11 points and three rebounds Sunday. "That really stood out to me. It wasn't like she was trying to sell me on anything but that she really cared. What I love about Aleighsa is she's more of a leader than a boss. A boss is someone who tells you what to do, but a leader goes through it with you -- and teaches you, step by step."

Welch knew the steps South Carolina took under Staley before she committed to play for the Gamecocks. She was aware she was joining something still in "construction" mode and that there was still a lot of heavy lifting to do.

But Welch's example in leadership was her mother, Sharell, who spent two decades in the Navy. She understood discipline and commitment and, just naturally, had a buoyant personality.

What Staley told Welch after her sophomore year, though, was there was more to give. She needed to really open herself up to her teammates, to be someone they knew always had their backs. Welch took that to heart. She was crushed last year by the disappointments the Gamecocks had in the postseason: losing in the semifinals to Kentucky at the SEC tournament and then to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

But she knew she had another chance to make a postseason run as a senior. The Gamecocks' regular-season finale loss March 1 at Kentucky was frustrating, but it seemed to galvanize Welch and her teammates all the more.

"It's been a season of breaking down barriers and accomplishing things that I don't know if a lot of people thought we could do until they saw it," Welch said. "But I believed it since this summertime, when we were playing pickup. To be able to accomplish this -- especially in the SEC, where every night is a challenge -- means a lot. We had that slip-up at Kentucky, but the bitter feeling we had last week is overtaken by the joy we have today."

It was definitely a scene of pure joy after Sunday's victory. The Gamecocks relished the entire celebration: getting the pyramid-shaped trophy, cutting down the nets, signing autographs, posing for pictures with fans, hugging each other and anyone else wearing the garnet and black of South Carolina.

In the middle of it all was Welch, the heartbeat of the Gamecocks.

"There is one thing Aleighsa can't do," Sessions said. "She cannot dance. I hope she wouldn't tell you that she could. She tries to, and it's the funniest thing. She has so much energy, but she has no rhythm."

That's OK, though, because Welch and the Gamecocks are about to do some "dancing" of another kind. And they hope it leads them all the way to Tampa.