COLUMBIA — South Carolina and coach Dawn Staley are back in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, Staley and the Gamecocks want much more.
“For us, this is just part of our journey,” Staley said Monday.
The Gamecocks (23-9) are returning to the NCAA women’s tournament for the first time since 2003. They were picked as the fifth seed in the Fresno region and will face Eastern Michigan (23-8) in an opening-round game Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind.
If South Carolina gets past the Mid-Athletic Conference champs, it would face either Purdue or South Dakota State.
Staley has reached the second round only twice in six previous NCAA trips as Temple’s head coach. This is her first tournament appearance in her four seasons with the Gamecocks.
“Words can’t really explain how we’re feeling right now,” said Markeshia Grant, South Carolina’s leading scorer this season at 10.6 points a game.
There’s been a lot of that for the Gamecocks this winter – and the milestones were spelled out on the back of T-shirts they gave to fans at their NCAA selection party.
The team reached 20 wins for the first time since it last played an NCAA game nine years ago. It went 10-6 in the SEC, also the high-water mark of the past decade. There was also the Gamecocks’ 64-60 victory over Tennessee last month, which ended a 40-game losing streak that spanned three decades.
“This has been so much fun,” gushed athletic director Eric Hyman. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Hyman took some heat four years ago when he lured Staley away from her hometown team of Temple with a salary package of $650,000. Some wondered how the school could pay that much – it was a higher salary at the time than national championship baseball coach Ray Tanner earned – for a sport that ranked way down the list in fan support.
The Gamecocks finished with five victories over ranked opponents and led the SEC in scoring defense at just more than 50 points a game.
The offense was led by speedy guards La’Keisha Sutton and Ieshia Walker, who often found Grant open for three-point shots. Grant topped South Carolina with 55 field goals from behind the arc this season.