Six days removed from a stunning loss in the SEC tournament, South Carolina women’s soccer team learned its NCAA tournament fate: a No. 1 seed and potential home matchups all the way to the Final Four.
That path to the College Cup begins Friday, as USC will face Alabama State at Stone Stadium. As the news was announced Monday, the squad, watching at a local restaurant, burst into cheers.
Last Tuesday, the No. 3 Gamecocks were in a far different position. They entered the conference tourney with a 15-1-1 record and a SEC regular season championship, only to be upset by unranked Arkansas in the quarterfinals, the team’s first conference loss since Nov. 4, 2016.
But that defeat was not enough to deny South Carolina its second consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And for the second consecutive year, the Gamecocks will face the Hornets in the first round of the championship. Last season, the matchup was a rout, as USC won 7-0.
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“I’m just thrilled to be a No. 1 seed,” Gamecocks coach Shelley Smith said. “Knowing we played Alabama State already and got through obviously gives these girls more confidence ... but we’re also not going to take them lightly. Anytime you’re in the NCAAs, it changes.”
The loss to Arkansas was very much on the team’s collective mind this week, Smith said, as the coaching staff and veteran players tried to use it as a teaching moment for the squad’s 13 freshmen, just as they did when USC lost early in the season to Wake Forest, its only other loss on the year. After that game, the Gamecocks went on a 14-match unbeaten streak.
“Obviously (the loss) was bittersweet. But it gave us a little extra edge. We came back and we realized we’re going to take this time to prepare and rest our legs and get the right mindset moving forward,” senior defender Anna Conklin said.
Furthermore, Smith said, the loss did help in some ways by allowing players with nagging injuries to rest and train, instead of going through a grueling tournament.
“We’re going to turn that into a positive,” Smith said. “We’ve had some disappointments this year and come back a better team ... to lose then is not the worst thing in the world.”
Last season, the Gamecocks advanced to the Elite Eight, falling at home to North Carolina one win shy of the College Cup. This year, the team’s leaders have more perspective, senior forward Savannah McCaskill said, and they’re hungry to finally break through and reach the program’s first national semifinal.
Who: USC (15-2-1) vs. Alabama State (12-7-1)
What: First round NCAA tournament game
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Stone Stadium