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Collins Hill grads come home with Gamecocks

DULUTH - "Home sweet home" Stacey Booker chirped as she approached the court for practice at the Arena at Gwinnett Center on Wednesday.

For the University of South Carolina's Booker and Shannel Harris, the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament is a homecoming.

"I don't think we even live two miles away from here," Harris said.

As excited as the former Collins Hill High School standouts are to be back in Gwinnett County, though, the seniors know their return could be short and highly disappointing.

A loss to Auburn in the 1 p.m. SEC Tournament opening game today would likely end Booker and Harris' college careers.

"This means a little more to us than some of the other players," Harris said. "Especially with a lot of our family and friends finally getting a chance to see us play."

"It won't be our last game," Booker said. "We can't let it. We have too much to play for."

A victory over Auburn (19-11) would likely get South Carolina (16-13) back to the Women's NIT. An upset of No. 2-ranked Tennessee on Friday might earn the Gamecocks some NCAA Tournament consideration.

"There's a lot more basketball we want to play," Booker said.

Booker scored 27 points, including the final nine, as South Carolina beat Auburn 70-61 at home on Feb. 15. It was just one point off her career best.

But South Carolina finished in a three-way tie with Auburn and Kentucky for seventh in the SEC at 6-8, setting up a rematch of last year's first round. Auburn sent South Carolina to the NIT - rather than the NCAA Tournament - with a 64-48 defeat last year.

"Don't forget," South Carolina coach Susan Waivius told her team at the end of practice Wednesday. "We owe them."

Booker and Harris knew nothing but winning at Collins Hill, claming state titles as sophomores and juniors and falling in the second round as seniors.

That hasn't been the case at South Carolina, however, although the Gamecocks were coming off seasons of 25-7 and 23-8 when the pair signed. Booker and Harris started 10-18 and 8-21 at USC before going 17-12 at juniors.

"It's been disappointing at times," Booker said. "But we're not done yet."

With five other seniors on the roster, Booker and Harris aren't the only Gamecocks hoping for a big SEC Tournament, even if Tennessee looms very large in the quarterfinals.

"We can't think that far ahead," Harris said. "But it would be great to play a big game like that here in front of all our friends and family."

Booker averages 8.5 points per game and is one of South Carolina's top 3-point threats, although she is a streaky shooter. Harris, four inches taller than Booker at 6 feet, is a defensive stopper.

It's off the court, though, where Harris has really excelled at South Carolina. She already has a finance degree and is completing work in marketing and management for another degree.

Booker, who hopes to play basketball overseas, is on track to graduate in December in technology support and training management.

"My thing is computers," she said.

Neither Booker nor Harris, however, is thinking about heading out to the real world right now.

"As seniors, it would be great to go out with some big wins here," Harris said. "Especially with the SEC Tournament here at home."

"This is going to be a lot of fun," Booker said. "We'll be playing for more than just one day."

Two other players from Gwinnett County, both freshmen, will face each other in the 7 p.m. game today. Shantell Black of Collins Hill plays for Ole Miss and Shiloh's Courtney Strauthers for Alabama.

Tennessee, Georgia, Vanderbilt and LSU - seeded No. 1 through No. 4 - drew first-round byes. The Bulldogs will play the Kentucky-Arkansas winner at 3:30 p.m. on Friday.

The championship game is at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday and will be televised by ESPN2. The rest of the games are on FSN South, with the semifinals beginning at 6:45 p.m. Saturday.