The roar from the Frank McGuire Room at Colonial Life Arena matched any heard on the arena floor this season.
A packed house of players, coaches and fans watched to see where the postseason ride would begin for the South Carolina women’s basketball team in the NCAA tournament.
It was a long wait before USC’s name was announced as the No. 4 seed in the Norfolk (Va.) Regional. The Gamecocks will face No. 13 seed South Dakota State in the first round Saturday at 4:10 p.m. in Boulder, Colo.
“Oh my gosh, it was a long wait,” senior co-captain Ieasia Walker said. “I didn’t want to be in Colorado because it’s so far for our fans, but I’m still excited and ready to play right now. It’s was nerve-racking waiting so long.”
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It’s also the second straight season South Carolina might face a second-round opponent on its home floor. With a win, USC will face the winner of fifth-seeded Colorado and 12th-seeded Kansas.
“Playing in the SEC, I think it prepares us to play in the NCAA tournament on somebody’s home floor,” coach Dawn Staley said. “We have to win a game before we even have to worry about that matchup happening though. ... Right now, we just focused on South Dakota State. That’s our target.”
The Jackrabbits (25-7), who are making their fifth straight NCAA appearance, won the automatic bid after winning the Summit League tournament.
The Gamecocks (24-7) were projected to be a No. 5 seed in the College Park Regional by ESPN, but it didn’t play out that way. They were in the third regional to be announced, and when their name appeared on the screen, a sigh of relief came from the players and coaching staff followed by a large roar from several hundred fans that packed the Frank McGuire Room.
“They made us wait a little bit longer and let the excitement build up to where I was a little bit nervous,” Staley said. “That doesn’t happen very often, but the anticipation of seeing your name across the screen, it’s a huge event.”
South Carolina is making the NCAA tournament for the 10th time. They are in the tournament for consecutive seasons for the third time and the first since 2002-03. The 2002 team made the deepest run ever by a Gamecocks team — advancing to the Elite Eight before losing to Duke.
South Carolina reached the Sweet 16 last year before losing to Stanford. They were the No. 5 seed last season and had to defeat No. 4 seed Purdue on their home floor in West Lafayette, Ind.
“For some of us, we’re experienced at it,” sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch said. “We had to play Purdue at their home-court but now it’s a matter of getting everybody focused for it. We can’t look past South Dakota State and focus on playing Colorado on their home court. If you look past any team, that’s when they get you.”
Walker echoed her teammate’s statement.
“It helps us have confidence in ourselves, since we know we won’t have a lot of fans,” Walker said. “We had a good crowd travel with us last year, but since it’s so far, I’m expecting less than that this year. We’ll just try to lock in to what the coaches are telling us and be prepared.”
USC finished fourth in the SEC for the second straight season and matched the school record for regular-season victories. The 11 SEC wins also is the best in school history.
The Gamecocks have won 20 games in consecutive seasons, a feat they have accomplished four times since joining the SEC in 1991-92. The other two times were the 2002 and 2003 teams. This will be the second-highest seeding for South Carolina. The Gamecocks were a No. 3 seed in 1982 and 2002.
“It shows that the coaches are bringing in great players,” Walker said. “We lost a lot last year, so we had a lot of fresh new faces and young people, and they stepped up to the plate. It shows that we’re trying to build a legacy here and get better every year.”
One of the concerns this week will be the high altitude of Boulder. Walker played in nearby Colorado Springs for a high school tournament, and Staley has experience playing in the area with Team USA.
“There is a noticeable difference at the beginning of practices and games, but you settle down,” Staley said. “Hopefully, we can establish that and get over that in practices.”
Staley, who played in three Final Fours and made an appearance in the 1991 final as a player, has taken eight teams to the NCAA tournament. Last year is the farthest she has ever advanced as a coach.
“Half of our team has experienced being in the Sweet 16,” Staley said. “You can’t take that lightly. We’ll hopefully use that to our advantage and hopefully continue to advance. We’re trying to get to the second and third weekends in the NCAA tournament.”