COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Even in a season that finished with South Carolina selected as the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Gamecocks have had a chance to grow and learn through their two losses. Coach Dawn Staley says it’s time to stop learning and to show what they know.
“If you win or lose (during the regular season), you’re going to get back up and continue the habits that you created,” Staley said. “Here, now your habits have to be on display every single game, every single practice, in and out through your day.”
The Gamecocks (29-2) open the tournament Friday against No. 16 seed Howard (21-9). The Bison had to win the first-ever play-in game in the new 68-team tournament for the women.
The Gamecocks are upbeat. If there were hard practices or harsh words after the 64-62 loss to Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference title game on March 6, neither Staley nor her players were dwelling on it.
But there are things to fix. Kentucky outscored the Gamecocks 21-7 in the fourth quarter of the loss, and in the semifinals Ole Miss used a 21-8 fourth period to make the result — a 61-51 South Carolina win — appear closer than it was.
Destanni Henderson said the energy in the last 12 days of practice has been better.
“I just feel like those last two games weren’t our best games. I feel like coming into practice after those games I feel like we’ve just been going even harder or just getting extra reps in,” the senior guard said.
Howard junior forward Brooklyn Fort-Davis said already playing one game on South Carolina’s floor is a small benefit for a team that can’t get caught up in the hype.
“We can’t play this game like we’re scared. Yes, they’re the No. 1 seed, but we have to play the game like they’re just any other team,” she said.
Despite their established perch on top of the women’s college basketball world. Friday’s game will be the first time in four years that South Carolina has hosted the women’s tournament in its own arena. The men’s tournament was at Colonial Life Arena in 2019 while the Gamecock women had to host in Charlotte. There was no 2020 event and in 2021 all the games were in the San Antonio bubble.
“I can’t wait to see the atmosphere,” all-American junior Aliyah Boston said.
In the opening game Friday, two friends from Florida are taking their teams to South Carolina as No. 8 seed Miami (20-12) faces No. 9 seed South Florida (24-8).
Before COVID-19, the Hurricanes and Bulls would meet about halfway between Miami and Tampa before the season began for a closed scrimmage. Miami coach Katie Meier invited South Florida coach Jose Fernandez to her no-topic-off-limits coaching symposium five years ago.
“Jose and I were texting each other at the same time when the bracket came out. We are very familiar,” Meier said.
So both coaches know to expect a defense-filled battle. Miami hasn’t allowed more than 70 points in its past 12 games, while South Florida has gone 15 games without letting an opponent score more than 70.
“I don’t know how much fun the game is going to be to watch, but I think you’re going to see two good teams who defend and rebound,” Fernandez said. ”It might be a race to 60.”
Howard gets to try to do something Friday that every other team in Columbia has done this year — knock off a No. 1 seed in the tournament.
South Florida beat Stanford 57-54 in November in the Bahamas. Miami beat Louisville 61-59 in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinals. South Carolina has beaten both Stanford and North Carolina State this season.
“We know what the opportunity is. It’s just to go out and play and compete. I don’t think about No. 1 seeds,” Howard coach Ty Grace said.
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