South Carolina women’s basketball knew it was going dancing for a seventh consecutive year entering Monday. As SEC champions, Dawn Staley’s team had already earned an automatic bid to the 2018 NCAA tournament.
What the Gamecocks didn’t know was their seed and regional. Now they do, as the selection committee gave USC a No. 2 seed in the Albany regional, topped by No. 1 overall seed UConn, on Selection Monday.
With that placement, the Gamecocks will host the first two rounds of the tourney at Colonial Life Arena, starting Friday against No. 15 seed North Carolina A&T at 7:30 p.m. Virginia-California is the No. 7-10 game and will be played before USC’s game with tipoff at 5 p.m.
Staley said Monday that her coaching staff had considered North Carolina A&T a potential first-round opponent before the matchup was revealed.
“We take one game at a time, and thank goodness we’re part of the top 16, we get to host,” Staley said. “We are a one-team preparation at a time team.
“Our coaches are back at the office, pulling every game possible.”
As for the second round, Staley acknowledged the outside attention a game against Virginia, her alma mater, would bring, even if she said she hasn’t kept up with Cavaliers “very much” over the years.
“I think the (selection) committee likes storylines,” Staley said. “And the storyline is, if we get past North Carolina A&T, and Virginia gets past Cal, it’s a great storyline.”
Should South Carolina advance to the tournament’s second weekend, it will travel to Albany, where a potential Elite Eight showdown with No. 1 seed Connecticut awaits. The Huskies have already defeated the Gamecocks this season, 83-58, on Feb. 1, and Staley said in order for USC to reverse that result, it needs to channel its performance from the SEC tournament.
“They run a pretty good system and they’re a fine-oiled machine,” Staley said of UConn. “You gotta do somehow what we did to Mississippi State — you have to put them situations that are unfamiliar to them by keeping the game close.”
“They do lose, just like every other team,” sophomore point guard Tyasha Harris said. “They could have a bad night, and we could sneak up on them.”
USC has never been to back-to-back Final Fours, and with Connecticut standing in its way, the Gamecocks will not be favored to make it this year. That’s OK by senior forward A’ja Wilson.
“I’ve always been looked at as the underdog my four years here,” Wilson said. “The target on our back just got a little bit bigger. Even winning a national championship, we’re still the underdog. Even winning the SEC, we’re still the underdog. We just take it all in. It fuels our fire, honestly. We come out, we have fun.”
The past two seasons, South Carolina has been placed in far-flung regionals — Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Stockon, California — leading Staley to express her frustration with the selection committee’s decision. She did so again Monday, saying the decision was “disheartening” and challenging the selection committee to re-evaluate its message to schools or what it values.
“We do have a long way to go, but that’s the history, we always gotta travel far,” Harris added. “But we know our Gamecock fans are always going to support us.”