SEATTLE — South Carolina looked little like a No. 1 seed to start the NCAA Tournament.
Mostly because Cal State Northridge didn’t play like a typical No. 16.
Tiffany Mitchell scored 24 points, Alaina Coates added 13, and the top-seeded Gamecocks took a while to pull away from the Matadors in a 73-58 first-round win Sunday.
Dawn Staley didn’t care that the score will grab attention for its lack of margin. For a team that’s young and not built to blowout opponents, the South Carolina coach thought Cal State Northridge provided a perfect entry into the tournament.
“I wasn’t surprised. This is March. Welcome to the madness,” Staley said. “I’m glad I’m sitting here able to prepare for a game on Tuesday.”
South Carolina (28-4) were the new kids when it came to being a top seed in the NCAAs, garnering the achievement after never being higher than a No. 3 seed in the past. And while the Gamecocks didn’t play poorly against the champions of the Big West Conference, it took far longer than expected to finally dispatch of the pesky Matadors.
South Carolina will face No. 9 seed Oregon State in the round of 32 on Tuesday night.
South Carolina outscored Northridge 27-11 at the free-throw line and had 20 second-chance points.
“We just tried to go out there and do what we did to get the No. 1 seed and stick to our game plan,” Mitchell said.
Janae Sharpe led Cal State Northridge (18-15) with 26 points, but was held in check most of the second half.
Ashley Guay, the Big West player of the year, was held to six points on 2 of 9 shooting. She had to be helped off the court with 4:34 left in the game after hitting her head hard on the floor going for a rebound, a play where she was called for a foul.
“I’m proud of them as young women,” Northridge coach Jason Flowers said. “They showed a bigger audience today what they are as young women, what we are as a program.”
After losing just twice over the first four months of the season, South Carolina lost two of their final three games entering the tournament. The losses ultimately didn’t keep South Carolina from earning a No. 1 seed, but they were sluggish in putting away the Matadors.
Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam both added 11 points for South Carolina.
“I think they made big plays. Sharpe did an excellent job of coming through when they needed a big play, especially toward the end of the game,” Welch said. “... They were scrappy. They were scrappy the entire game. They weren’t going to lie down and let us run them over.”
The Matadors hung around because of Sharpe. She made 6 of 9 shots in the first half including a trio of 3-pointers and had 15 points. She was also the spark for a run in the second half that had the Matadors thinking upset.
Northridge used a 9-2 spurt early in the second half to trim an 11-point deficit down to 45-41 when Bernadette Fong scored on a perfect entry pass from Sharpe with 12:57 remaining. But the Gamecocks scored the next 10 points as their size on the interior allowed multiple second-chance opportunities from Coates and Ibiam. By the time Guay hit a 3 for Northridge with 8:18 left, the drought had been 4½ minutes and the deficit was 11.
Out of a timeout, Tina Roy hit a 3 as the shot clock expired and the lead was back to 14. The Matadors made a final fun getting within 60-54 on Cinnamon Lister’s three-point play and Sharpe’s driving scoop shot. But Ibiam scored in the lane for the Gamecocks and Sharpe missed a 12-footer ending the Matadors hope of making the closing seconds very uncomfortable for South Carolina.
“I think it shows us what we need to work on as far as going forward,” Welch said. “... It’s always good to get that first game under your belt.”