“Gamecocks vs. Everybody.”
That was the slogan on Dawn Staley’s sweatshirt as she talked about South Carolina’s upcoming Sweet 16 matchup with Baylor this weekend in Greensboro.
And heading into Saturday’s NCAA tournament game, close to everybody will be picking against the Gamecocks — Baylor, the No. 1 overall seed, has an 89 percent chance of winning, according to FiveThirtyEight, a website that focuses heavily on stats and polls. The Lady Bears (31-1) are favored by 14 points, according to bracketologist Warren Nolan.
Accepting, embracing and even playing up the underdog role is a tactic with which USC and Staley are familiar.
All season long, the Gamecocks (23-9) have played with a little chip on their shoulder, and when they defeated Florida State last weekend to make their sixth consecutive Sweet 16, junior guard Tyasha Harris said it felt like the team have proven something to anyone who thought Carolina might take a step back without graduated star A’ja Wilson.
“I think so, yeah,” Harris said when asked if the Sweet 16 berth without Wilson was special. “A’ja was a big contributor to this program, an amazing player. And we had to pick up the slack, as a team, collectively, we had to do it. And I think we did a pretty good job of just progressing as the season went on.”
The Gamecocks might not be a Cinderella in the purest sense of the term — they were picked to finish second in the SEC and ranked No. 10 nationally in the preseason — but Staley and her players still felt that without Wilson, observers were expecting them to struggle.
“I don’t think people had us going as far as we are. No matter how much people said we were the second-best team in the SEC, no one really thought that. They just go off of past success,” Staley said. “So we will play the underdog role, as we have all season long.”
For those who doubt South Carolina’s ability to pull off the upset, Baylor’s 94-69 blowout of the Gamecocks back in December is a big reason why. The Lady Bears dismantled USC in that contest at Colonial Life Arena with a fast start and excellent shooting.
But for Staley, that loss in the past, and her team needs to enter Saturday’s game with the confidence of a team that has nothing to lose but something to prove.
“You have to have a level of confidence, even though you lost by 25. I think our players are there. We’ve had pretty good, energized practices the last few days. We got two more days to prep, and I think we just gotta keep them in that state of mind. No one’s gotta us winning the game, so we can run around and play a little bit loose. If we can stick around, I truly believe it’s anyone’s game at that point,” Staley said.
That growing confidence, combined with the belief that they will shock the world, is something that’s been growing for a while now.
“Our bond is getting stronger and stronger,” senior guard Doniyah Cliney said after the second-round win. “You can see it on the court. It shows a lot that we all care for each other and we’ll fight for each other no matter what.”
NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Sweet 16 schedule
The games, TV channels and schedule for the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
No. 2 seed Iowa vs. No. 3 North Carolina State, 11:30 a.m. ESPN
No. 1 seed Baylor vs. No. 4 seed South Carolina, 2 p.m., ESPN
No. 1 seed Mississippi State vs. No. 5 seed Arizona State, 9 p.m., ESPN2
No. 2 seed Oregon vs. No. 6 seed South Dakota State, 11:30 p.m., ESPN2
No. 2 seed UConn vs. No. 6 seed UCLA, 7 p.m., ESPN
No. 1 seed Louisville vs. winner of No. 4 seed Oregon State, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
No. 1 seed Notre Dame vs. No. 4 seed Texas A&M, 4 p.m., ESPN2
No. 11 seed Missouri State vs. winner of No. 2 seed Stanford, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2