When it comes to the No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, South Carolina is the new kid on the block.
The Gamecocks (27-4) earned a top seed for the first time in school history after winning the Southeastern Conference regular season championship. While fellow top seeds Connecticut, Tennessee and Notre Dame have proven to be perennial national powers, South Carolina is on the rise under head coach Dawn Staley as it opens first-round play against 16th-seeded Cal State Northridge on Sunday.
”We know what it feels like to hunt and now we know what it feels like to be the hunted,” Staley said. ”Our players are up for the challenge, we did it in conference play, and hopefully we can use that experience in the NCAA Tournament to have that type of success.”
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After losing just twice over the first four months of the season, South Carolina lost two of its final three games entering the tournament. The Gamecocks, who suffered all four of their losses to ranked opponents, lost 73-61 at Tennessee to close the regular season and fell 68-58 to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament.
The losses ultimately didn’t derail South Carolina’s hopes of earning a No. 1 seed.
It’s the third straight tournament appearance for South Carolina under Staley.
”I think we are a little more excited, but we still know what our expectations are from our coaches,” center Elem Ibiam said. ”We still have to go out there and handle business. We still have to go out there and practice hard today, and then go out there tomorrow and play our game.”
Ibiam was fourth on the team in scoring at 9.8 points per game, but she had a team-high 82 blocked shots. The Gamecocks were second to Connecticut nationally with 225 blocks, sixth in defensive field goal percentage (.344) and eighth in points per game allowed (55.1).
South Carolina also was a very efficient offensive team, finishing fifth in shooting at 48.2 percent while averaging 73.2 points. Sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell powers the backcourt, averaging 15.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals while making 50.8 percent of her shots.
The 6-foot-4 Ibaim is part of an imposing front line along with 6-4 Alaina Coates (12.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.1 blocks) and 6-foot Aleighsa Welch (13.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg).
Cal State Northridge (18-14), which won both the Big West regular season title and tournament, enters on a five-game winning streak and has won 11 of its last 13. Given South Carolina’s defensive prowess, the Matadors may find it more difficult to shoot than normal, which could prove problematic as they enter this game shooting just 39.6 percent for the season.
Ashlee Guay will have to carry the offense for Cal State Northridge to have any chance of advancing. The junior guard is averaging team highs of 16.3 points and 4.1 assists while making 42.4 percent of her 3-pointers.
The winner of this game will play the Middle Tennessee State-Oregon State winner in the second round Tuesday.