Savannah St.-South Carolina Preview
(AP) - South Carolina is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year - and this time the third-ranked Gamecocks get to host a couple of games.
The SEC champion Gamecocks (30-2) are atop the Greensboro Region and open Friday against No. 16 seed Savannah State (21-10), the Mid-Eastern American Conference winners who fell 111-49 in Columbia on Dec. 14.
South Carolina is making its fourth straight NCAA appearance and hosting a home game for the first time since 2002. That was the final year schools in the state could hold women's basketball regionals because of the NCAA's ban of South Carolina for flying the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds. NCAA rules shifted to awarding sites on merit, putting the Gamecocks at home.
The mood Monday night was less raucous than last season when the Gamecocks felt they had squandered a chance at a top seed. The team danced and celebrated last year when its name showed on TV. This time, the confident group casually took to the home floor where they'll be playing Friday.
''We get to play right here in front of you guys so hope to see you here this weekend,'' senior Aleighsa Welch said to those attending the watch party.
The Gamecocks have won 32 straight at home, but it won't be easy for them to advance. NCAA bracket builders put opponents in the region that should challenge South Carolina.
A victory by No. 8 seed Syracuse over No. 9 seed Nebraska on Friday would likely set up a rematch in the second round of one of the Gamecocks' most difficult games of the season. South Carolina defeated Syracuse 67-63 to win the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas on Thanksgiving weekend.
And if the Gamecocks do manage to advance to the Sweet 16, they could square off against No. 4 seed North Carolina. The Tar Heels knocked South Carolina out of the tournament in that same round a year ago in Seattle. This time, the Tar Heels would be playing a short car ride from their Chapel Hill campus in Greensboro, North Carolina.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley played to the fans Monday night.
''We know if we take care of the first and second round,'' she said. ''We know you'll take care of the Greensboro Regional.''
The Gamecocks have reached the Sweet 16 in two of their past three appearances. Last year's flame out to the Tar Heels, though, began a yearlong quest not just to return to the NCAAs but capture a national championship.
Staley's players followed her lead, embracing expectations and blowing away opponents - particularly in the SEC. Just two of their school-record 15 league wins came by fewer than double digits. The Gamecocks capped things earlier this month with a 62-46 victory over SEC powerhouse Tennessee to earn their first league tournament title and end all talk of slipping out of a No. 1 seed.
The Gamecocks spent 12 weeks on top of the rankings until getting hammered at UConn, the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed, 87-62 in Storrs. But South Carolina rallied back to lose just once more after that - 67-56 at Kentucky after clinching the SEC title - to keep its momentum going.
Two-time SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell will lead the Gamecocks against Savannah State, which is making its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Mitchell averages a team-high 14.4 points while SEC freshman of the year A'ja Wilson averages 13.3 points and 6.8 rebounds.
''Now, it's time for us to do what we've done the past two years, which is win and pack this house,'' Staley said.
Wilson led all scorers in the first matchup against Savannah State with 23 points. The Tigers got 18 points from all-MEAC fifth-year senior Ezinne Kalu, who averages 16.4.
Kalu is fourth among active players with 2,098 points and first with 378 steals. MEAC tournament MVP Jasmine Norman is the only other player scoring in double digits with 11.4 per game.
The Tigers enter on an 11-game winning streak after beating Maryland-Eastern Shore 65-47 in the conference title game.
''It means the world, especially to me,'' Kalu said. ''Well, I'm pretty sure it means the world to all of us, but it's been a long journey. ... It's definitely a feeling we're going to remember for the rest of our lives.''