South Carolina's Tiffany Mitchell (25) drives past Syracuse's Cornelia Fondren on a steal during the first half of a basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Richard Shiro
March 25, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina coach Dawn Staley believes her team is ready to finally push past the Sweet 16 and go deeper in the NCAA Tournament.

The Gamecocks have reached the round of 16 three times in the past four years - and saw their NCAA runs end there.

South Carolina needed to pull off a major upset three years ago to get past top-seeded Stanford in Fresno, California. A year ago, though, it was the top-seeded Gamecocks who were upended by North Carolina.

Now, it's the Tar Heels (26-8) who again stand in South Carolina's path. The teams will meet Friday night in Greensboro, North Carolina. - about an hour from the Tar Heels' campus.

Staley said there are no lingering mental hurdles and her players are eager to get on the court and continue pushing forward.

''This is a new year,'' Staley said Wednesday. ''We've gotten better. We're a different basketball team than we were last year.''

They're certainly a deeper, taller and well-rested squad.

The Gamecocks had won the first of two straight Southeastern Conference titles last season, yet a couple of late stumbles left them uncertain of their seeding. They were also shipped out west, winning first- and second-round games in Seattle before falling to the Tar Heels 65-58.

This time, South Carolina (32-2) followed its SEC regular-season crown with its first-ever league tournament title. The Gamecocks hosted the first two rounds and were the only opening host to play in front of two crowds of 10,000 or better

South Carolina has made quick work of its first tournament opponents, defeating No. 16 seed Savannah State and No. 8 seed Syracuse by a combined 62 points.

Gamecocks forward Aleighsa Welch said the team is focused on each step and does not dwell on its errors of the past.

''I don't think it's hard at this point in the season because you have so much riding on it,'' the senior said. ''We know we have to come out with a lot of energy and we know we have to outwork every opponent that's in front of us. We just have to have that mindset.''

That was not the case for South Carolina a year ago.

The Tar Heels and then star Diamond DeShields came right at the Gamecocks, pushing the pace on the way to building a double-digit lead in the second half. A South Carolina rally - it cut the lead to three points with less than two minutes remaining - fell short and the top seeds were sent packing.

A disappointed Staley met with her players soon after and all agreed their goal was go further, much further in chasing a national title.

South Carolina's trek has been helped by a deep bench featuring two of the SEC's top players, 6-foot-5 league freshman of the year A'ja Wilson and 6-4 Alaina Coates.

The pair have been a formable backup punch this season, combining for 24 points and 15 rebounds a game.

Their presence gives South Carolina starters like Welch and two-time SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell the chance for serious breaks during games to ensure they've got fresher legs at the end of games.

The Tar Heels enter this contest without DeShields - she transferred to Tennessee last offseason - but still with a potent scoring combo of Allisha Gray and Stephanie Mavunga capable of creating a fast pace.

South Carolina has only reached the Elite Eight once, losing to Duke in 2002.

Reserve guard Tina Roy said the Gamecocks weren't looking for North Carolina for a rematch. Now that it's here, though, she said last year's defeat won't figure into their preparations.

''This is another team that's in our way,'' she said. ''If we want to get to our destination, we just have to go out and execute against them better than last year.''

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