Dawn Staley has South Carolina six wins away from finishing off a historic season.
The Gamecocks are looking to become the 10th women’s basketball team to go undefeated for an entire season as the they enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
Staley’s squad has been challenged a few times this year but has always pulled through. The defending national champions will play Norfolk State in the first round of the tournament, the NCAA selection committee revealed Sunday night.
“It didn’t take a loss for us to learn from the lessons of a close game,” Staley said. “Now we found ourselves in a position where we can’t afford to lose.”
While the Gamecocks, led by star Aliyah Boston, have been a lock to be the top seed for most of the season, several schools were vying for the other No. 1s, including Iowa, Indiana, Virginia Tech, Stanford and Utah. The Hawkeyes, led by electrifying guard Caitlin Clark, have been a top seed twice before, in 1988 and 1992.
The committee ultimately chose the Hoosiers, Hokies and Cardinal. Indiana and Virginia Tech are first-time No. 1 seeds. Stanford has been a top seed 13 times now, including in the last three tournaments.
“We spent a lot of time on a variety of things. certainly the number one line and the right teams hosting,” selection committee chair Lisa Peterson said.
Maryland was named a No. 2 seed in South Carolina’s bracket. The Terrapins will host 15th-seeded Holy Cross in College Park on Friday.
The tournament begins Wednesday with two First Four games. The full madness starts with 16 games Friday and 16 more the next day.
South Carolina may have the easiest path to the Final Four in Dallas as it won’t have to go far from home. The Gamecocks, who are the 18th team to reach the NCAA tourney unbeaten, will play their first two games on campus before potentially heading 90 minutes away to Greenville, South Carolina, for one of the two regionals. The Gamecocks just won the Southeastern Conference Tournament at that site.
“It’s great. When we got shipped out to Stockton (California, in 2017), we thought it was a drag, but we end up winning the national championship. So there are blessings in all types of situations,” Staley said. “We’re blessed that Greenville was a region. We’re blessed that we did enough to get to sent to this region and we have to make it work for us. We know it won’t be easy.”
The NCAA changed its format this season and is having two regional sites for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds. Greenville hosts one and Seattle the other. Once again the top four teams in each region will host the opening two rounds.
The other top teams in South Carolina’s bracket are No. 2 seed Maryland, No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 4 UCLA. The Gamecocks beat both Maryland and UCLA this season.
“I like it. Some familiarity. Take care of Norfolk State, then see where that takes us,” Staley said. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. Sometimes when you’re in a tournament setting like this it’s always a good thing to have played someone.”
Indiana is the other top seed in Greenville. Utah is the 2 seed with LSU third and Villanova fourth.
UConn, which was the last team to go unbeaten and win the title in 2015-16, is looking to extend its own history and reach the Final Four for the 15th consecutive year. The Huskies had a difficult year with injuries but finally started to get healthy heading into March. Star guard Azzi Fudd, who missed 22 games with a knee injury, returned for the Big East Tournament and helped the Huskies win it.
Geno Auriemma’s team, which has won a record 11 national championships, is a No. 2 seed in Seattle. The Hokies are the top seed in that part of the bracket. Ohio State is the 3 seed and Tennessee the 4. The Lady Vols have been in every NCAA Tournament since it started in 1982.
The Cardinal are the No. 1 in the other Seattle regional. Iowa is the No. 2, Duke the 3 seed and Texas 4.
The Atlantic Coast Conference has eight teams in the tournament with the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 each having seven. The Big 12 has six and the Big East five.
Four teams will be making their first appearance in the tournament: Southern Utah, Southeastern Louisiana, Sacramento State and Saint Louis.
Columbia, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon were the first four teams out of the field.