COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Ashley Bruner remembers the punishing runs most of all from her earliest days with South Carolina coach Dawn Staley.
The Gamecocks senior forward said her freshman year was a sustained series of team disciplines for not following rules or giving effort the way Staley expected.
"I tell the younger players all the time, 'You'd never make it with all that running,'" Bruner said Wednesday.
These days, Bruner and the Gamecocks do their most significant running on the court and have used a high-energy, tough-minded defensive style to reach a second-straight NCAA tournament.
It's an accomplishment Bruner and South Carolina's seniors hope to build on in the Norfolk Regional. The fourth-seeded Gamecocks (24-7) open play against South Dakota State (25-7) on Saturday in Boulder, Colo.
South Carolina advanced to the round of 16 a year ago, winning at Purdue to get there. The Gamecocks could face a similar hurdle this year with host Colorado.
But it's nothing like the obstacles Bruner recalls her first couple of years in Staley's system. There was yelling, frustration and lots of losses. The Gamecocks were 9-21 in the Southeastern Conference in Staley's first two seasons. Bruner, from Norman, Okla., and Ieasia Walker, from Amityville, N.Y., were both freshmen in Staley's second year and wondered what they'd gotten themselves into under their driven coach.
"Discipline was big because we had people who weren't used to discipline," Bruner said.
Staley, the college All-American and three-time Olympic gold-medal winner, acknowledged the difficulty at turning South Carolina around. When she arrived, Staley said players didn't know what it took to succeed. That slowly changed as Staley attracted hard workers like Bruner and Walker to the program.
"When you bring in winners," Staley said, "you're generally going to win."
That's occurred the past three seasons. The team played in the women's NIT after the 2011 season, then broke through with an NCAA at-large berth a year later.
The Gamecocks showed their coach's grit with two wins in last year's tournament before falling to Stanford in the round of 16.
Bruner, Walker and junior college transfer Sancheon White wanted to make their final season memorable and took the reins from last year's stellar senior class of La'Keisha Sutton and Markeshia Grant, who combined for more than a third of South Carolina's 61.2 points a game in 2012.