THINGS JUST continue to get better and better for the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team.
Not only have the Gamecocks earned a second consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but they will host the first two rounds in the friendly confines of Colonial Life Arena.
Playing at home in the opening round is a tremendous advantage for a Gamecock team that, over the past few years, has had to go on the road during the tournament, playing in such places as Indiana, Colorado, Washington and California. The Gamecocks, who will be hosting a regional for the first time since 2002, have won 32 straight games at Colonial Life Arena.
Since Coach Dawn Staley arrived in 2008 and began transforming the program, the USC women have been on a deliberate march toward elite status: four consecutive 20-win seasons, two SEC regular season championships, the women’s first SEC tournament championship and now a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
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The Gamecocks have posted 14-2 and 15-1 records in the SEC the past two years, claiming the regular-season crown in the nation’s toughest and deepest conference for women’s basketball both years.
While last year’s selection as a No. 1 seed in the tournament was unprecedented and incredible, expectations were not quite as high as this year. Last year’s team was a solid unit that bowed out in the Sweet 16. But this year’s squad is a deep and talent-laden bunch that has what it takes to make a deep run.
How deep a run? The Gamecock faithful understandably have high hopes of Coach Staley’s team reaching yet another amazing milestone: a trip to the Final Four and an opportunity at winning a national title.
The Gamecocks (30-2) play their first game at 5 p.m. on Friday against 16-seed Savannah State (21-10), with eighth-seed Syracuse (21-9) and ninth-seed Nebraska (21-10) rounding out the four-team regional. The winners of the two first-round games will meet at 7 p.m. on Sunday with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.
If USC lives up to its billing as the favorite and wins two games at home, it would advance to Greensboro, N.C. Two wins in Greensboro would punch the Gamecocks’ ticket to Tampa, Fla., site of the Final Four.
But first things first: Coach Staley, her assistants and the team must take care of business at home, where they are likely to be embraced by a boisterous crowd. The Gamecocks have led the nation in home attendance, and fans shouldn’t allow that to change this weekend.
By injecting a can-do attitude into the program, setting a new standard of winning and reaching out to fans and the community, Coach Staley and crew have developed a large, diverse and loyal fan following. The team’s appeal goes beyond avid basketball or sports fans and has captured the collective heart of the broader community. The positive attention this rising program has brought to the university and Columbia is laudable.
The last time USC’s women hosted in the NCCA tournament — at the Carolina Coliseum in 2002 — the Gamecocks made it to the Elite Eight; that is the deepest the team has ever advanced in the tournament.
But we have a feeling the best is yet to come. This Gamecock team is on a mission. Coach Staley and her staff have done an excellent job of recruiting top-notch players. Ever the competitor, Coach Staley hasn’t shied away from talk of winning a national championship. We wouldn’t expect any different from a coach who, as a player, earned a birth into the Naismith Hall of Fame and three Olympic golds.
Now let’s lace ‘em up, Gamecocks. Go for the NCAA tournament gold.