South Carolina’s name came up so quickly in the NCAA selection show that senior guard La’Keisha Sutton was caught off guard when the capacity crowd inside the Colonial Life Arena’s McGuire Club erupted with cheers for the school’s first berth in nine years.
“I wish I had another year,” Sutton said looking around the room.
USC (23-9) will play 12th-seed Eastern Michigan in West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday in the Fresno Regional. The Eagles (23-8) finished with the second-best record in the MAC and won the conference tournament. This will be the first meeting between the schools.
The winner could face opening-round host and 14th-ranked Purdue, winner of the Big Ten tournament, on Monday. Top-seed Stanford is on the same side of the bracket — setting up a potential Sweet 16 meeting with the nation’s No. 2 team.
The team practiced last week during USC’s spring break after losing to Tennessee in the semifinals of the SEC tournament. Players peeked at projected NCAA brackets while working on their shooting and defense. The Gamecocks were the nation’s fourth-stingiest team in allowing points this season.
“We’ve been well prepared,” senior Markeshia Grant said.
South Carolina players know little about Eastern Michigan, but coaches expect to have a full game plan within a day.
The Eagles are led by the nation’s second-highest scorer, 5-foot-7 senior guard Tavelyn James, who averages 24.2 points per game. Eastern Michigan ranks in the top 50 nationally in scoring, steals and rebound margin as well as steals. The Eagles are poor at shooting and defending 3-pointers.
“I think they will come in comfortable after winning their tournament,” Sutton said.
Even though the Gamecocks expected a bid after a 20-win season and a No. 32 ranking in the RPI, seeing the school name was moving to the team and fans. Players and coaches wearing matching black “I believe” T-shirts were overwhelmed by the roar from hundred of fans inside the club.
“It was a dream come true,” fifth-year senior Courtney Newton said.
Three-time Olympic gold medal winner Dawn Staley took over the USC program in 2008 and increased wins each season from 10 to 23 this year. The Gamecocks lost in the second round of the women’s NIT last year.
“It took four years, but it was well worth the wait,” Staley said. “I think we’ve done it the right way, putting a product on the floor that sometimes didn’t always look as polished as it looks today. Certainly, we paved the way.”
The NCAA trip will be Staley’s seventh as a coach. She went to the tournament six times at Temple, though she never got past the second round. Staley said getting her first bid at USC was a little more exciting because of what it means to fans.
“We worked for this,” she said. “I’m very happy for the Gamecock Nation. One rule: They like winners. But they also are patient and, if they see progress going on, they will continue to support you.”
The bid is the Gamecocks’ ninth to the NCAAs. USC has gone past the second round just twice — a Sweet 16 in 1990 and an Elite Eight in 2002.
South Carolina was part of an onslaught of SEC teams making the tournament. The league, which has the nation’s second-highest RPI, landed a conference-record eight teams in the NCAA field for the second time since 1999.
Tennessee and Kentucky received No. 2 seeds. Georgia is a fourth seed, while LSU received a fifth, Arkansas got a sixth, Vanderbilt came in a seventh and Florida earned a No. 9 seed. Stanford, Connecticut, Baylor and Notre Dame grabbed the top seeds.