Top-seed South Carolina draws on past Syracuse experience
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Dawn Staley got the first real confirmation of her team's toughness against Syracuse four months ago. South Carolina's coach hopes to see that affirmed in Sunday's NCAA Tournament second-round game with the Orange.
The top-seeded Gamecocks (31-2) try to reach the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons when they face No. 8 seed Syracuse (22-9) on Sunday night.
When the teams met in the finals of the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas last November, South Carolina was ranked No. 2 nationally - a status Staley said her team was still growing into.
The Gamecocks trailed by 10 points with less than seven minutes left before rallying past Syracuse 67-63.
''I thought that was our first test at being resilient,'' Staley said Saturday. ''Although, it was not the prettiest of wins, for us, all season long, this team has been able to really make adjustments and figure out how you win. It's going to take that effort against Syracuse again.''
South Carolina players tapped into their Bahamas experience several times in their record-setting season. The Gamecocks were down by four in the final minute at Duke before winning 51-50 and held firm in nail-biting contests with Kentucky (68-60) and Tennessee (71-66) on the way to a Southeastern Conference championship.
''It made us realize there were different levels of basketball out there and we really needed to experience them to grow and progress in the right direction,'' South Carolina forward Alaina Coates said.
For Syracuse, the loss was bitter. The takeaway, though, showed the Orange they could stand with any club in the country. Coach Quentin Hillsman expects a similar plan out of the Gamecocks in trying to control the middle.
''Good teams stick to the script,'' he said.
So will Syracuse. Hillsman said the Orange will pull out their Bahamas game plan on defense, keeping three across the back line to take away South Carolina's size advantage. ''We understand what we have to do, we have to protect the paint,'' Hillsman said. ''I don't think it's a secret.''
Some things to watch for when Syracuse plays South Carolina:
South Carolina drew 10,644 fans for its opening, 81-48 win over Savannah State on Friday night. Syracuse's total home attendance this season? 10,644. While the Gamecocks were No. 1 nationally with 12,540 per game, Syracuse ranked 200th with 710 a game.
COUNT ON TIFFANY
Two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year Tiffany Mitchell was not much of a factor in South Carolina's opening-game win, with nearly as many turnovers (5) as points (7). Expect that to change. When she had just four points in the Gamecocks SEC tournament semifinal win over LSU, she responded with 17 points in the championship game over Tennessee. ''I think my teammates and coaches have enough confidence in me to know even though I didn't have a good game, I'll bounce back,'' she said.
Syracuse guard Alexis Peterson has found an extra gear in the postseason. The Orange's leading scorer, who averaged 15.7 points this season, has gone for 54 points her past two games. She had 34 points in a loss to Wake Forest at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and then 24 in defeating Nebraska 72-69 on Friday night.
THE NEXT STEP
Syracuse had lost first round games in the first two NCAA Tournament trips under coach Quentin Hillsman. Last year, the Orange advanced to the second round before losing to Kentucky. This time, the team has that experience to draw on Sunday. ''I think it helps,'' Hillsman said. ''And this year, it's great that it's an opponent we already played.''
POUND THE POST?
Syracuse limited South Carolina's effectiveness down low, committing to a sagging zone that didn't allow the Gamecocks tallest players much room to move. The power trio of 6-foot-5 A'ja Wilson, 6-4 Alaina Coates and 6-4 Elem Ibiam were a combined 5-of-17 for 15 points - all of them from Wilson. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley expects a similar challenge this time.