For the second time in program history, the South Carolina women's soccer team has reached the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.
After advancing past Clemson and Seattle in shootouts following 0-0 ties in the first two rounds, the No. 18 Gamecocks (13-5-5) play No. 6 North Carolina (14-3-2) at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill Sunday at 1 p.m.
But the road to the College Cup will include a degree of difficulty that goes past facing the Tar Heels, who have advanced to the Sweet 16 for 33 consecutive seasons on the way to 21 national championships.
USC will be playing without its two best players at their regular positions. All-American senior goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo will not be in the net for the second consecutive game due to a serious wrist injury suffered last week in practice, although she is available for field play.
And All-SEC senior defender Taylor Leach will have to serve a one-game suspension for drawing a pair of yellow cards, with the second one coming before a corner kick in the final minute of regulation, that led to ejection against Seattle. USC lost an NCAA appeal Saturday to have the suspension overturned, which means sophomore Paige Bendell will step in to play center back for Leach.
USC coach Shelley Smith hopes her players can respond to the situation as they did in defeating the Redhawks, when freshman goalkeeper Abbey Crider got her first career start and delivered a shutout with three saves in 110 minutes of play.
"It's disheartening that some of the senior leaders aren't going to be able to move forward and try to continue to help the team," Smith said. "It makes your depth that much more important and players have to play for each other and the team. They have a lot of pride. They're not going to back down. But it's tougher when you don't have all your players out there."
The Gamecocks, who are playing in their seventh NCAA tournament in the last eight seasons under Smith's guidance, advanced past the second round only one other time. It occurred in 2009, when that team won home games against Davidson and Rutgers before losing a buzzer beater to Wake Forest at Stone Stadium in the round of 16.
The biggest issue facing South Carolina will be finding a way to score. The Gamecocks have gone 343 minutes without a goal, a streak that dates back three games to a 2-1 win over Missouri in the SEC tournament semifinals.
"We've definitely had our frustration with the lack of scoring goals, but they've never given up and they've worked so hard to put us in positions to win," Smith said. "And they've put themselves in a position to be one of the top teams in the country, and they are."
They found a way to edge Seattle 2-1 in the best-of-five penalty-kick shootout, which included Crider making a huge stop on the Redhawks' fifth kick and sophomore midfielder Chelsea Drennan drilling the game-winner on USC's final kick.
Smith hopes the team's resolve can continue in order to reach the Elite 8 for the first time.
"You train all season and now you have the opportunity. We all count on each other to be ready to go," Smith said.