If Dawn Staley wants to dwell on a loss, she’s got four to pick from this year.
What happened in South Dakota last year can stay there for all Staley and her South Carolina women’s basketball team care. The Gamecocks are focused on this year’s NCAA Tournament, they say, and that begins Friday when top-seeded USC hosts No. 16 seed UNC-Asheville at 5 p.m. in Colonial Life Arena in the first round of the Stockton Regional.
Last year’s tournament ended abruptly when fourth-seeded Syracuse upset top-seeded South Carolina 80-72 in Sioux Falls, S.D., but the Gamecocks (27-4) aren’t trying to make amends for that this season.
“This is a new team with a new outlook,” Staley said Thursday. “We want to experience better memories and take care of the things we are in control of. We are in control of our own destiny.”
There are no posters in South Carolina’s locker room with the final score of that game. There will be no “Remember the Orange!” motivational speeches. In fact, when South Carolina star forward A’ja Wilson was asked about Syracuse on Thursday, she thought the question referred to a possible rematch in this year’s tournament (which couldn’t happen until the national championship game and won’t happen because the Orange will almost certainly be playing and losing to Connecticut in the second round).
“I don’t think they are going to be a factor yet,” Wilson said. “If we meet them, if we see them, of course we will attack that when that comes, but I haven’t paid any mind to it.”
Thanks to the ankle injury that ended senior center Alaina Coates’ season early, Wilson is the only USC regular who was a significant contributor on last year’s team. Four of the Gamecocks expected to start Friday weren’t on the team or eligible to play during last year’s tournament.
If Staley wants to make any points for this year’s team, she can’t very well point to a loss that’s almost 12 months old.
“We have four losses that we can draw on that our team has experienced this season,” she said. “Our entire team is really focused in on making a long run and if you’re making a long run you have to stay in the moment and make sure you are not overlooking anyone and this team has never done that. They have always been an in-the-moment type of the team and we look forward to challenges of the tournament.”
Challenge is the word that comes to mind for UNC-Asheville, which finished the regular season 15-14 and stormed to four straight wins in the Big South Tournament to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are capital “U” underdogs, but their coach, former Florida assistant Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick, has pointed out to them that stranger things, or at least things just as strange, have happened.
“Yes, we definitely know about that game,” UNC-Asheville senior center KJ Weaver said.
“That game” is the No. 16-seeded Harvard women’s upset of No. 1 seed Stanford in 1998, which remains the only time a No. 16 seed has knocked off a No. 1 in either the women’s or men’s tournament.
“There’s always a possibility for another historic moment so that’s what we’re striving for,” Weaver said.
South Carolina is simply striving to make sure it has no more games like Syracuse that it has to forget.
NCAA women’s tournament
Who: (16) UNC Asheville (19-14) at (1) USC (27-4)
When: 5 p.m. Friday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
Radio: 107.5 FM
UNC Asheville’s probable starters: G Khaila Webb 5-7 Jr. (10.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg); G Chatori Major 5-7 Sr. (13.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg); G Sonora Dengokl 5-9 So. (7.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg); G Jessica Wall 5-6 So. (5.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg); C KJ Weaver 6-1 Sr. (8.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G Ty Harris 5-10 Fr. (5.4 ppg, 1.6 rpg); G Bianca Cuevas-Moore 5-6 Jr. (8.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg); G Allisha Gray 6-0 Jr. (12.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg); G Kaela Davis 6-2 Jr. (12.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg); F A’ja Wilson 6-5 Jr. (17.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg)
Next game: The winner plays the Arizona State-Michigan State winner on Sunday at a time to be determined.