GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) Dawn Staley has spent seven years building South Carolina’s program to get to this point – past the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, playing to reach the Final Four.
Florida State coach Sue Semrau has spent even longer trying to reach the tournament’s final weekend.
The Greensboro Region on Sunday final is a rare opportunity for both programs. It’s only the second Elite Eight appearance for either school, with one team set to make its first trip to the Final Four in Tampa.
The No. 1-seeded Gamecocks (33-2) survived a tense finish to beat North Carolina 67-65 on Tiffany Mitchell’s last-second layup.
South Carolina had lost twice before in the regional semifinals under Staley, including a year ago to the Tar Heels. The Gamecocks are in their first regional final since 2002.
”Our team has been a creature of habit,” Staley said Saturday. ”We’ve been able to focus on the task at hand and we’ve been able to turn the page and focus in on the next task. Obviously, it’s a great win for our program. It’s a great milestone. But it’s not our destination game.”
Junior Tina Roy said she thought there was ”kind of a weight lifted” by getting past the Sweet 16 for the Southeastern Conference champions, who spent 12 weeks at No. 1. Mitchell agreed, but added they ”couldn’t breathe easy because we knew we had to turn around and play Florida State.”
The No. 2-seeded Seminoles (32-4) were picked fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and were unranked in preseason, but have set a program record for wins. They edged Arizona State 66-65 to reach their first regional final since 2010 under coach Semrau, who’s in her 18th year at the school.
”People think of the Final Four as a destiny,” Semrau said. ”This team doesn’t see that. This is a game. It’s a great team we’re getting ready to face, and if we put too much emphasis on the destination, then we’re not going to be prepared for the next thing.
”I think it’s really important that we keep our mind on our business.”
BOARD WORK: FSU is ranked third nationally in rebounding margin (plus-12.5) while South Carolina is 10th (plus-10.1). The Seminoles have been outrebounded once, while the Gamecocks have been outrebounded twice. FSU top rebounder Adut Bulgak called rebounding ”contagious” for her team. South Carolina leading rebounder Alaina Coates said her team has to be aggressive ”because we know we can’t go in there soft.”
GAMECOCKS’ DEPTH: South Carolina’s deep roster has nine players averaging at least 15 minutes. Bench play was huge in the UNC win: Coates produced 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10-for-10 shooting at the line, Roy hit three second-half 3-pointers and Olivia Gaines (averaging 1.6 points) hit a tying 3 near the 1-minute mark.
TESTED, TOO: After winning two tournament games by a combined 60 points, the Seminoles held off a late push to beat No. 3 seed Arizona State by one point on Friday. ”For us to get through that and stay together only makes us improve on what we can do and how we will play towards South Carolina,” senior Maegan Conwright said.
ROMERO’S SCORING: FSU’s Leticia Romero scored 21 points on 10-for-16 shooting on Friday. The Seminoles could use another good showing against a defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring (53.2 points) and shooting percentage (34.5 percent). ”Lettie knew that it was a role she needed to take in order for us to win,” Semrau said. ”That’s when she is at her best scoring-wise, is when she knows she’s needed.”
COMFORTABLE SURROUNDINGS: Both teams have reason to feel comfortable at the Greensboro Coliseum. Staley said the Gamecocks had nine busloads of fans at Friday’s game, giving them a bigger and louder crowd than the home-state Tar Heels. As for FSU, the Seminoles play every year here for the ACC Tournament and reached its first title game this month.
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