SEATTLE (AP) 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.
”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 their final three games entering the tournament. The Gamecocks 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.
The Gamecocks will play No. 16 seed Cal State Northridge in the first round on Sunday. No. 8 seed Middle Tennessee State will face No. 9 seed Oregon State in the other game in the Seattle regional.
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.”
Here are five things to watch in Seattle this weekend:
LONG LAYOFF: When South Carolina takes the court on Sunday, it will be more than two weeks removed from their last game in the SEC Tournament. The Gamecocks were eliminated from the conference tournament with a 68-58 defeat at the hands on Kentucky on March 8. The 15 days between games will be the longest stretch without playing all season for South Carolina.
”We’re ready,” guard Khadijah Sessions said. ”We have been approaching every practice like a game situation. We want to win a championship, so I think we are going to be ready.”
South Carolina’s longest prior gap between games was a 10-day break in December that preceded one of the team’s three regular season defeats; a 74-66 loss to North Carolina.
BROKEN BUS: Cal State Northridge (18-14) not only has to face the daunting task of tackling a No. 1 seed, they had to overcome transportation issues just to get to Alaska Airlines Arena on Saturday.
The Matadors’ bus broke down after developing an engine problem between their hotel and the University of Washington campus. The players crammed into a minivan to complete their trip to the arena for their scheduled practice session.
”(The delay) was 10-15 minutes. It wasn’t bad at all,” guard Ashlee Guay said.
EXPERIENCED: Middle Tennessee State (29-4) is used to playing in the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Raiders have made it into the field in 10 of their last 11 seasons, only missing the tournament in 2008.
However, they aren’t used to winning once they get there.
Middle Tennessee State hasn’t won a tournament game since an 85-46 first-round victory over Gonzaga in 2007.
”We’ve been here and we’re used to all this,” senior forward Ebony Rowe said. ”The expectation is a little higher this year.”
HIRED HELP: Seattle Storm forward Alysha Clark returned to Middle Tennessee State this season to serve as an assistant coach on Rick Insell’s staff. Now Clark gets to help lead her alma mater into the NCAA tournament in the city she calls home during the WNBA season.
”She’s been in our shoes and she’s played for coach Insell so she understands the system perfectly,” Rowe said. ”It’s a perfect balance.”
Clark was a two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year honors and led the nation in scoring in 2010 in two seasons at Middle Tennessee State.
RAPID REBUILD: Scott Rueck inherited an Oregon State (23-10) team in 2010 with just two players on the roster after seven players left the program amid allegations of emotional abuse by former head coach LaVonda Wagner.
The program was in such shambles the athletic department considered suspending the program for a year. Instead, the team forged on to just a 9-21 record in Rueck’s first season. Three years later, the Beavers are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.
”It’s been an incredible experience and extremely rewarding,” Rueck said. ”They are so hungry. . Motivation is coming from the team now. That wasn’t the case previously.”