So much for that bad end to the season.
Two losses in the final three games didn’t keep No. 8 South Carolina from one of the biggest prizes in program history, as the Gamecocks claimed one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. USC (27-4) is the top seed in the Stanford Regional, and will open tournament play at 5:30 p.m. Sunday against Cal State Northridge in Seattle.
Eighth-seed Middle Tennessee and ninth-seed Oregon State fill out the four-team pod. If USC advances, it would head to Stanford, Calif., for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds. Host Stanford, if it advances, will play on its home court in the middle two rounds of the tournament. The Cardinal eliminated the Gamecocks two seasons ago.
Matchups, potentials, statistics could wait for another day. A crowd at Colonial Life Arena loudly cheered USC as its name was flashed on the scoreboard screen, a congratulations for a job well done in an SEC regular-season championship season.
“We are going to enjoy it tonight,” coach Dawn Staley told the crowd. “Tonight, we will implement our 24-hour rule. We will enjoy this tremendous moment for our program.”
And recognize how the NCAA selection committee rewarded the Gamecocks for what they did all season, not in losing two of their final three games.
Projections had USC as a No. 2 seed after falling to Tennessee in the regular-season finale and to Kentucky in the SEC tournament, but the committee apparently felt that winning 14 of 16 games in the country’s toughest conference by RPI rating equaled a No. 1 seed.
Stanford, which lost three games this season and had a higher RPI than USC, is the No. 2 seed in the regional, playing in Los Angeles, and that sent the Gamecocks to Seattle.
USC joined Tennessee, UConn and Notre Dame as a No. 1 seed.
“You look at what we’re trying to do here at South Carolina, which is win national championships,” Staley said. “I think it does start with getting No. 1 seeds and putting yourself in the same breath as the Notre Dames, the UConns, the Tennessees I think it’s just a breath of fresh air to have somebody new.”
The Gamecocks won’t get anything easy. The rest of the bracket is stocked with Stanford, which beat USC in Columbia last season; Penn State, which has won six of the past seven against USC; conference foe Florida, which the Gamecocks beat this year; and North Carolina, which gave USC its first loss this year.
But the Gamecocks are pretty good, too. Led by SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell, SEC Freshman/Co-6th Woman of the Year Alaina Coates and first-team All-SEC selection Aleighsa Welch, USC feels ready to take on all comers.
“It’s completely out of our control, at that point,” Welch said. “You don’t want to tell yourself, ‘We’re guaranteed to be a two-seed, because Tennessee got the one-seed, because look how it turned out.’ You never really know what happens when the decision’s in the committee’s hand. I’m just glad that everything has paid off for us to get this one-seed.”
The Gamecocks will most likely leave on Thursday to get to Seattle, get acclimated to the climate and then practice on Friday and Saturday. They will play the first game in the pod on Sunday.
Staley was proud of her team for what it had done so far, but realized that none of it means anything in a one-and-done tournament. The Gamecocks took a major step forward this year, and they don’t want it to end anytime soon.
“What they’ve been able to do as a unit is truly incredible,” Staley said. “We’re not going to rest on our laurels. We’ve had a tremendous season; we do not want it to end prematurely.”