March 2014 will remain memorable for South Carolina assistant coach Nikki McCray no matter what happens with the top-seeded Gamecocks in the NCAA tournament.
On March 10 she underwent her final round of chemotherapy for breast-cancer treatment. McCray, 42, was diagnosed in November. She waited until a 10-day winter break in the team’s schedule to share the news, however.
“I don’t want this to be about me,” said McCray, a two-time Olympian and former star at Tennessee. “I wanted them to have time to adjust and still be focused on our goals, which is winning a national championship.”
The players noted that McCray’s fight, a characteristic she had as a player, helped put life as a student-athlete into perspective.
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She’ll have another checkup when the team returns to Columbia, S.C., this week to see if the treatments were successful.
“Once you find out you have cancer, things change,” McCray said. “Your diet changes. Your routine changes. I didn’t ever drink as much water as I am now.”
• A popular question Monday was whether last year’s tournament exit was on South Carolina’s mind. On the same date in 2013, Kansas upset fourth-seeded South Carolina, 75-69, in the NCAA tournament’s second round.
“We don’t discuss last year,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said. “We were a totally different basketball team. We’re bigger and people scout us a lot differently than they had in the past. What we need to do is really concentrate on what got us here today.”
• With universities on opposite sides of the country, Oregon State coach Scott Rueck and Staley first crossed paths in the heartland on recruiting trips.
“We used to see each other in Kansas at the junior-college tournament as we were trying to rebuild our programs in a hurry to be competitive,” Rueck said. “That’s not probably everybody’s choice to be there — you’d like to build in other ways with four-year players. But look where we are now.”
Rueck was hired in 2010 and led OSU to its first tournament berth since 1996 and first win since 1995. Staley was hired in 2008 and led the Gamecocks to their first regular-season conference title and No. 1 seed in program history.
• OSU (Pac-12) and South Carolina (SEC) ranked second in their conferences in scoring defense. The Beavers limit opponents to 60.5 points, a trait Rueck attributes to his playing days.
“Believe it or not, I played,” said Rueck, whose father was a junior-high basketball coach. “If you watch ‘SportsCenter,’ some people just see offense — a dunk or certain play. I see the defensive side of the play and how it would have been easy to stop.
“Part of it might be I’m a 5-foot-4 male trying to play a game not fit for 5-4 males. I had to be perfect because I wasn’t going to get anything easy for my team. That trained me to learn the game from that perspective.”
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067
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