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.
South Carolina tied a school record with a 10-0 start. Its 11 SEC victories were a program best and Walker became the school's third player with at least 1,000 points, 250 assists and 250 steals on the way to her being named the SEC's defensive player of the year.
More importantly, sophomore Aleigsha Welch said, the seniors set a tone for how the players would perform in practice, in games and around campus.
"Being able to hold this team together, they've showed me the meaning of leadership," Welch said.
They've also gotten Staley and her staff to lighten up a bit. There's not as much yelling at practice or disciplinary runs for not following rules.
"I think we've become a better practice team and that's why you're seeing the results," the coach said.
It's almost as simple as players growing up, Staley said. Five years ago, Staley and her assistants were challenged by players questioning the increased emphasis on weight-room training and fitness, or the harder regimens at practice. The questions kept coming as losses continued.
"But kids are tangible beings and being in the spotlight is something they like to do," Staley said. "And when they find that they're successful with things, it's a little easier to coach, it's a little easier to motivate."
Staley believes she's got a highly motivated group heading into the NCAAs when they leave campus Thursday morning. The yelling of the past is largely left as team folklore, passed down from the older players when a new group arrives.
"We remind them all the time of what we went through," Bruner said. "I think they have a grip on where we came from so that makes them want to do things a lot better and leave a better legacy."