South Carolina is in its 10th NCAA women’s basketball tournament this year, and the Gamecocks are aiming for their best back-to-back tournament performances.
Coming off last year’s Sweet 16 loss to No. 1 seed Stanford, USC received a No. 4 seed in this year’s tournament – one better than it got last year – and will play No. 13 South Dakota State at 4:10 p.m. Saturday in Boulder, Colo.
USC has made the Sweet 16 two times other than last year – in 1990 and 2002, when it made its lone Elite Eight. In 2003, the Gamecocks lost in the second round, which they have done a total of three times. Their other three trips were first-round exits.
A No. 4 seed isn’t USC’s best ever – it got a No. 3 in 2002 and 1982, its first tournament, when it lost in the second round – but this is yet another sign of progress for the Gamecocks, in coach Dawn Staley’s fifth season.
If the Gamecocks can survive Boulder, where Colorado and Kansas are the No. 5 and 12 seeds, they almost certainly would play top-seeded Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 in Norfolk, Va., provided the Irish can beat Tennessee-Martin, then Miami or Iowa, the No. 8 and 9 seeds.
Before Staley arrived, USC hadn’t had nights like Monday’s Selection Show party in a while. Before the 2002 and 2003 tournament appearances, USC hadn’t made the NCAAs since 1991, which was its fourth straight trip, on the heels of 1982 and 1986 appearances.
“I would love getting used to it,” sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch said as she considered the scene at Monday’s party.
Welch, a Goose Creek High graduate and huge in-state recruit for Staley, leads USC with 12 points per game and ranks second with 7.7 rebounds per game, behind senior forward Ashley Bruner’s 7.9. Bruner ranks second on the team with 10 points per game.
USC’s starting guards are seniors Ieasia Walker and Sancheon White, and freshman Tiffany Mitchell. Walker and Mitchell average 9.5 and 9.2 points – third and fourth on the team.
The Gamecocks increased their SEC win total by one this year, to 11-5, despite losing four starters off last year’s team, including guards Markeshia Grant and La’Keisha Sutton, their top two scorers. Also gone was forward Courtney Newton, though Bruner and Welch played twice as many minutes as Newton as reserves, and physical forward Charenee Stephens.
Welch ranked fourth on the team with 7.6 points per game last season and became more of an offensive factor this year, while continuing to rebound. She led USC with 6.1 boards per game last year. Walker, as the lone returning starter, has provided vocal leadership, while increasing her scoring average from 7.9 last year, third on the team. Bruner is more of an offensive threat now as well, after averaging 7.2 points last year.
But USC wins with defense, just as it did last year. USC this season ranked first in the SEC with 52.8 points per game and a 37.3 field goal percentage allowed in league play. Last year in league play, USC allowed 54.1 points and a 38.8 field goal percentage.
“I think a lot of people were surprised at how well we did this year,” said Walker.
Said Welch: “I think we’ve carried over the same toughness. We carried over the same defense, which is one thing that we really wanted to make sure stayed.”
USC might have hosted a first- and second-round site if not for the NCAA refusing to hold predetermined host site events in the state of South Carolina because of the Confederate flag that flies in front of the State House.
Like the men’s tournament, host sites for the first and second rounds of the women’s tournament are awarded in advance. Unlike the men’s tournament, women’s teams can play at home in the first and second rounds, as Purdue did last year when USC traveled there and as Colorado will this year.
But if not for the flag rendering Columbia ineligible to host, USC would have been a strong hosting candidate, because of the size of its arena and the growing prominence of women’s basketball. Just because USC got a No. 4 seed and was good this year doesn’t mean it would have hosted. The first/second-round sites were announced last February.
The NCAA’s ban on South Carolina venues hosting its events is only for tournaments/events whose host sites are predetermined, like the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Because baseball’s Regionals are determined after the season and the host sites aren’t awarded in advance, USC is able to host those.
Of course, Staley and her players knew they would have to travel for the tournament all along, just as they did last year.
“The first three years (coaching at USC), I would have played anywhere, with any kind of seed,” said Staley. “But that’s the way it’s set up. We’ve got to go ahead and take care of business wherever we ended up. It is what it is. I’m just happy to be playing.”
Said Welch: “I think being that we did it last year (by winning at No. 4 seed Purdue to make the Sweet 16), it makes us get used to it. We had to face their home crowd and I think it kind of just has us ready for what we’re going to have to face this year.”
Of course, USC has to beat South Dakota State and Colorado needs to knock off Kansas in order for the USC-Colorado matchup to happen.
It will be interesting to see how Staley’s team handles playing in Boulder’s altitude. Staley leans heavily on her starters, who all average between 26.3 and 32.8 minutes. The top reserves average 17.3, 15, 13 and 10.6 minutes. And that is the entirety of USC’s roster.
But this team is confident after going 24-7 to follow up last year’s 25-10 season – just its fourth winning year since it went 23-8 in 2002-03. No longer is playing in the NCAA tournament, and going on the road to do it, a new thing for this team.
“We belong,” Staley said.
She said she wasn’t sure about the recent NCAA tournament experience of South Dakota State, Kansas or Colorado. (A quick check of the history books reveals that South Dakota State was bounced in the first round last year by Purdue, while Kansas made the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed and Colorado wasn’t in the field.)
Still, Staley said her team’s Sweet 16 experience last year was critical to knowing what to expect in the tournament.
“You can’t really take that lightly,” she said.