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Back to Georgia for USC women

The annual rite of May continued Wednesday for the South Carolina women’s tennis team: It left for the NCAA tournament, where for more than a decade the Gamecocks have been a mainstay.

USC, which plays Virginia Commonwealth on Friday night, is making its 14th consecutive appearance in the 64-team NCAA tournament.

A bigger hurdle is getting to the 16-team NCAA Championships, which will be played next week in Tulsa, Okla. The Gamecocks have advanced to the Round of 16 twice, most recently losing in 1999 to Georgia.

The Bulldogs loom large again this year. This weekend’s matches are being held in Athens, Ga., and if USC (12-9 overall) beats VCU, it will likely have to face Georgia, the second-ranked team in the country.

Georgia swept USC in their regular season meeting, 7-0, on March 7. But Gamecocks coach Arlo Elkins was unbowed.

“If we get to Georgia, I think we match up pretty well with them,” Elkins said. “They are the No. 2 team in the country. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s possible if we get this far.”

Elkins is in his 25th year as the Gamecocks coach, also taking them to the Round of 16 in 1990 and 1995. If this year’s team is going to break through, it will need more balance.

The top three singles players (junior Gira Schofield, junior Natasa Vuckovic and sophomore Ana Marija Zubori) have a combined winning percentage of 65.3. But the bottom three spots have been less productive.

The Gamecocks are familiar with their surroundings in Athens, which is a slight bone of contention for Elkins.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the NCAA has had a more regional approach to seeding. While last year’s USC team got a trip to Miami, this year saw it back on the bus to Georgia.

“I would’ve liked to have gone someplace else,” Elkins said. “It’s a reward for the girls to make the NCAA. This is about the fourth time we’ve been to Georgia in the last two years. But we’re just happy to be here.”

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.