GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) Top-seeded South Carolina earned a conveniently short trip for its NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance.
Its opponent – fourth-seeded North Carolina, the lowest seed left in the region – got an even shorter one.
The Gamecocks (32-2) and Tar Heels (26-8) meet in the tournament for the second straight year in a Greensboro Region semifinal Friday night.
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South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said Thursday that ”we’re fortunate we only had to take a bus ride” and that even though they are essentially playing and ”on someone else’s home court, I think our fans could make us feel very much at home.”
The Gamecocks earned their second straight top seed after winning their first Southeastern Conference tournament.
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell says ”I don’t see any weaknesses” in South Carolina.
To get to their first regional final since 2002, they’ll have to get past a familiar foe: The Tar Heels upset them last year in the round of 16.
Their only losses since that 65-58 defeat last March in Stanford, California, have come to overall top seed Connecticut and to Kentucky in the regular-season finale.
”I’ve been waiting for this game, waiting for revenge. The time is now,” guard Khadijah Sessions said. ”Just ready for me and my teammates to prove what we should have proved last year.”
Of course, this Tar Heels team has a completely different look.
Diamond DeShields, who keyed that victory, transferred to Tennessee. Post player Xylina McDaniel, the daughter of NBA player Xavier McDaniel, hasn’t played since December with an unspecified right leg injury.
And North Carolina didn’t have its Hall of Fame coach for that game, with Hatchell making her return this season after taking a one-year leave to fight leukemia.
Hatchell has led a team in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2011 and will try to reach her first round of eight since 2008.
”I still have some dents in the furniture in my den from watching the game on TV and jumping around and throwing things,” Hatchell quipped.
Some things to know about the latest renewal of this border rivalry:
CONTRASTING STYLES: North Carolina loves a fast-paced game, with Hatchell’s teams known for their ability to rebound and run – as evidenced by the flurry of scoring in the Tar Heels’ 86-84 second-round win over Ohio State on Monday night. The Gamecocks would prefer to pick their moments to push the tempo. ”We just need to be calculating in our approach to the game,” Staley said, ”and that is run when we have the opportunity, and when we don’t, play half-court basketball and pound the ball inside.”
TAR HEEL TWOSOME: Sophomores Allisah Gray and Stephanie Mavunga have been putting up consistently big numbers for the Tar Heels. Mavunga scored a career-high 27 points against the Buckeyes, routinely beating them down the court for layups. Gray leads the team with a 15.9-point scoring average and 54 3-pointers.
PALMETTO PLAYERS: Hatchell has been well-connected in South Carolina – she coached at Francis Marion before coming to UNC three decades ago – and always seems to attract some of the best players in that state to Chapel Hill. Three Tar Heels hail from the Palmetto State, including two current starters plus McDaniel. South Carolina has eight state natives on the team and Staley has made it her mission to keep the top players at home. ”We’ve pounded the pavements,” Staley said, adding that ”I thought we’ve done a tremendous job of keeping our local players at home. … We’re fairly happy with the trade-off.”
FORMER TEAMMATES: Continuing that theme, North Carolina’s N’Dea Bryant and the Gamecocks’ Aleighsa Welch were teammates four years ago at Goose Creek High School in South Carolina. ”We have some great high school memories together, but at the end of the day, it’s still your opponent,” Welch said. ”You love them from a distance.”
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