COLUMBIA — The challenges aren’t over for top-seeded South Carolina.
Coach Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks understand that despite their first-ever Southeastern Conference championship and No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they’ve got plenty left to prove.
That was apparent from Monday night’s draw. South Carolina’s trip starts some 2,800 miles West of campus in Seattle, by far the longest trek of the four top seeds. Connecticut and Tennessee open at home while Notre Dame starts play in Toledo, Ohio.
“I kind of like traveling, honestly,” said Tiffany Mitchell, South Carolina’s leading scorer voted SEC Player of the Year by league coaches. “I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal.”
Should the Gamecocks (27-4) advance to the Round of 16, they will likely face a team they have already lost to in North Carolina. And then there’s the potential matchup for a Final Four berth with Stanford on the Cardinal’s home court.
One step at a time, Mitchell said, and that means focusing on 16th-seeded Cal State Northridge (18-14), the Gamecocks’ opening-round opponent Sunday.
“I don’t know that we’re trying to put that much pressure on ourselves” to think past this weekend,” Mitchell said. “We’re just going to try and execute, stick to the game plan and not think, ‘Oh, we’re the top team.’”
Staley came to the Gamecocks six years ago with that in mind. But it’s been a bumpy ride at times to get there.
South Carolina was just 2-12 in SEC play in Staley’s first season of 2008-09 and saw two of her biggest recruiting coups in 6-foot-5 Kelsey Bone and 6-2 Kayla Brewer leave after their first seasons with the Gamecocks.
Still, Staley found players she believes can shrug off those who convinced South Carolina can’t compete with the very best.
“They’ll probably be some naysayers who’ll say we didn’t deserve (the top seed),” Staley said. “You’ve got to check our record. You’ve got to check our league. I think we’ve done a tremendous job with this young basketball team and we just have to continue it.”
SEC first-team forward Aleighsa Welch doesn’t think the Gamecocks bracket was packed with land mines by selectors looking to derail South Carolina’s ground-breaking season. Still, she knows her team can’t flame out early or they’ll lose some of the respect gained nationally this year.
“We have to make sure we handle our business,” she said. “We have to make sure we prove to everybody who didn’t believe that we are deserving of this number one seed that we are worthy of it. We can’t have any lapses.”
Welch was part of the team two years ago that advanced to the round of 16 and fell to then top-seeded Stanford 76-60 in Fresno, Calif. The Gamecocks were a fourth seed a year ago but lost to 12th-seeded Kansas in the round of 32, far short of where Staley and her team envisioned last season ending up.
Staley expected somewhat of a rebuilding project this year as three starters from last season in forward Sancheon White and guards Ieasia Walker and Ashley Bruner were gone.
The Gamecocks, though, started fast and relied on a strong post presence led by Welch and 6-4 towers Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates. Ibiam (82) and Coates (64) were second and third in SEC blocked shots this season. Coates was named the league’s freshman of the year in the coaches’ vote and shared the sixth-man award with Kentucky’s Jennifer O’Neill.
Their few stumbles, though, have all come away from home.
North Carolina knocked the Gamecocks from the unbeaten ranks in December with a 74-66 win at a Mrytle Beach holiday tournament. Their two SEC regular season losses came at Texas A&M in mid-January and at Tennessee a game after South Carolina had wrapped up the league’s crown.
The last defeat ended the Gamecocks’ SEC tournament run, a semifinal loss to Kentucky that even Staley had believed would cost them a No. 1 seed. She let her players celebrate their achievements last night before snapping back into tournament preparations.
Staley said she’ll use her memories of reaching the Final Four as a player to keep the players on task.
“As coaches, we’ll jolt them back to reality and work on the mental aspect of the game,” she said. “I think the stronger you are mentally, the better you’re going to play.”