South Carolina is headed to Seattle as an NCAA tournament top seed for the first time in program history and it can thank Washington for the coveted slot.
The Gamecocks (27-4) won their first regular-season Southeastern Conference title but stumbled to finish the season with defeats against No. 3 Tennessee, and then No. 10 Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals. But those were quality defeats, according to the tournament selection committee.
No. 6 Stanford (29-3) entered Selection Monday as everyone’s favorite for the final No. 1 NCAA seed. Yet in an interview with ESPN, committee chair Carolayne Henry said Stanford’s defeat against a team with a below-50 RPI rating was the difference.
Washington defeated Stanford in February.
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“I was surprised,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said via phone. “We faltered a little at the end. I thought that would hurt us a little bit when it came to the committee. Obviously they looked at our total body of work and what we did in our conference weighed heavily on giving us the nod.”
Staley, the SEC coach of the year, will prepare her team to play No. 16 seed Cal State Northridge at Alaska Airlines Arena on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
The Matadors (18-14) won the Big West Conference Tournament to clinch the automatic bid.
While the UW defeat doesn’t look good on Stanford’s resume, the Pac-12 still was respected with five teams advancing to the NCAA tournament.
It’s the most for the conference since six advanced in 2006.
So, Oregon State (23-10) will join South Carolina in the field at Alaska Airlines Arena. OSU is a No. 9 seed slated to play No. 8 seed Middle Tennessee State (29-4) on Sunday at 5 p.m. The Beavers are making their first NCAA appearance since 1996.
Oregon State coach Scott Rueck isn’t new to postseason play, however. Before joining Oregon State, he led George Fox to seven NCAA Division III tournaments, including three Elite Eight appearances. The Bruins won the 2009 title with a perfect 32-0 record.
“It’s been such an incredible season of firsts,” said Rueck, who has one senior on the squad.
Middle Tennessee State has a unique Seattle tie in that Storm guard Alysha Clark is an assistant coach for the Blue Raiders. She was a member of the Storm’s playoff teams the past two years after graduating from MTSU in 2010.
The UW site is part of the opening round for the NCAA tournament’s Stanford Region, meaning South Carolina could have to play second-seeded Stanford on its Maples Pavilion home court despite being the higher seed.
It’s South Carolina’s third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. It reached the Sweet 16 in 2012 but lost in the second round last season.
“We knew we would have to be traveling, we just didn’t know how far,” Staley said. “But Seattle has a WNBA team, so it’s used to pulling for good basketball. I’m just hoping they will rally around our team.”
Staley plans to have her team travel Thursday to get acclimated to the time change.
The Gamecocks were last on the West Coast in November when they won at San Diego State and USC.
“I want to get focused and get away from all of the hoopla that’s going on in South Carolina,” Staley said of the excitement surrounding the Gamecocks’ seeding. “But I want us to enjoy the journey because one of the things that continues to fuel us is four years ago when we weren’t a part of the NCAA tournament and we were the doormats of the SEC, we felt every second of that. We’ve turned the tables and we want to enjoy it.”