COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley hopes her Gamecocks can cap off a somewhat disappointing season with a strong performance in the NCAA Tournament.
While the Gamecocks have 21 wins are ranked 15th in the country, it’s still not what Staley expected.
The 2017 national champions enter the tournament as a fourth seed, their worst in six seasons. Unless South Carolina (21-9) finds a way for stunning run to another title, it will finish with double-digit losses for the first time since 2012 — before the program’s championship run began under Staley.
The Gamecocks open tournament play Friday against 13th-seeded Belmont (26-6) on the campus of UNC Charlotte because of a conflict on their home court in Columbia. South Carolina applied for and received an NCAA waiver to host away from home since its home court is the site of the first- and second-round games in the men’s NCAA Tournament.
To make things worse, the Gamecocks enter the NCAA women’s tourney on a two-game losing streak after the four-time SEC Tournament champs were bounced by Arkansas in their quarterfinal matchup.
“It took us by surprise,” said Staley, the USA women’s national coach .
Several things have caught Staley off guard this year.
The Gamecocks were coming off an unprecedented run of program success, going 129-16 with that national title two years ago. It helped that for four seasons they were led by All-American and 2018 college player of the year in A’ja Wilson.
Still, Staley thought she had enough mix of experienced players like guard Tyasha Harris and forward Alexis Jennings and the infusion of newcomers like ex-Tennessee guard Te’a Cooper to keep remain a title contender this year.
Instead, the cracks in South Carolina’s foundation showed early with a 4-4 start that included a 25-point bludgeoning by No. 1 Baylor , also the top seed in the Gamecocks’ Greensboro Regional. They fell to 0-8 all-time against UConn with a February loss and dropped a pair to SEC champion Mississippi State, the last a 68-64 defeat at home when victory would’ve meant sharing the regular-season crown with the Bulldogs.
Harris, a freshman starter on the 2017 national championship team, said the players were highly disappointed to roll back into campus after their early SEC Tournament loss.
“But we’ve turned the page,” Harris said. “We’re getting ready and we’re bringing a different level” of energy.
The Gamecocks will need it. If they get past Belmont, the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament champions, they could face No. 25 Florida State (23-8) in Sunday’s game to make the Sweet 16.
The fifth-seeded Seminoles will take on 12th-seeded Bucknell (28-5), tournament champs of the Patriot League on Friday after South Carolina’s game.
If South Carolina advances, a rematch with Baylor most likely awaits in the round of 16.
Staley has not always liked her team’s defense this season and she has spent time since the SEC Tournament shoring things up for the tournament. South Carolina was second in the SEC in points scored, but ninth out of 14 teams in points allowed.
“We can feel good about scoring a lot of points, but when you give up more than you can produce, it makes you think,” Staley said. “So we’ve got to go back to the basics in defending and keep the people in front of us.”
Staley will be mindful that her team will be on unfamiliar ground in Charlotte, along with its three opponents in the pod. Halton Arena seats 9,000, about half the capacity of South Carolina’s home building.
The Gamecocks have a huge edge playing on their campus, going 8-0 in home NCAA games the past four years.
They led the NCAA in average attendance at 11,542 people per game, more than 2,500 ahead of second-place Iowa State.
Staley hopes Gamecocks fans will make the nearly two-hour trek from Columbia to Charlotte.
“I think all year long, our fans have done their job,” Staley said. “They’ll do that at UNC Charlotte. We have to match that, we have to match the output that our fans are putting into our players.”
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