COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina's road to a possible return to the Final Four just got a little more difficult.
Gamecocks forward Alaina Coates has been ruled out for the NCAA Tournament because of a right ankle sprain. The 6-foot-4 Coates has missed three of the past five games since first suffering the injury in a 62-60 loss at Missouri on Feb. 19.
South Carolina, the top seed in the Stockton Regional, opens NCAA play Friday against 16th-seeded UNC Asheville (19-14). If the Gamecocks (27-4) advance, they would take on either Arizona State or Michigan State for a spot in the Sweet 16.
Coates was expected to be a major part of whatever success the Gamecocks have in the tournament.
''It was tough,'' South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said Tuesday night on her radio show. ''I feel bad for Alaina because she's been a mainstay over the past four years. She got us to this point. She helped put us in position of putting our program in the national spotlight. And for her career to end this way, not being able to participate and giving it one more shot at winning a national championship on the floor is disheartening.''
Coates, a senior, led the Southeastern Conference in rebounding this year, averaging 10.7 boards a game and 12.9 points. Her presence alongside 6-5 A'ja Wilson, the two-time reigning SEC player of the year, gave the Gamecocks perhaps the country's best low-post tandem.
Staley said Monday night that Coates would test out her ankle as the team prepared to start the NCAAs. Less than a day later, Staley broke the news in a press release.
''This is something we've dealing with over the past few weeks,'' Staley said. ''I think it's just best that we shut it down, let her heal up so she can have a long, fruitful professional career.''
Coates is one of the major reasons the Gamecocks have won four straight SEC titles and three consecutive league tourney crowns.
She ends her college career as South Carolina's second-leading rebounder (1,230). She also is second on the school list with 57 double-doubles.
The Gamecocks have played well in Coates' absence, winning all five games since the ankle injury.
''It has been a resilient team,'' Staley said during the SEC Tournament.
Coates tweaked her injured ankle twice down the stretch, both times against Kentucky. She returned to action in the final regular-season game on Feb. 26, playing 27 minutes against the Wildcats. But she left the court in pain after crumpling to the floor following a made layup.
Coates played against Kentucky again in the SEC Tournament semifinals for just four minutes before injuring the ankle again and heading to the locker room.
Coates sat out South Carolina's 59-49 victory over Mississippi State in the SEC title game March 5.
She was named to the all-SEC first team the past two years and was the SEC's freshman of the year and sixth player of the year in 2014.
Staley said Coates had coped well with her college career ending. Now, the coach said it's up to Coates to keep her teammates focused on making a run to the Final Four - and beyond.
''She has to lead the cheerleading section. She has to lead by example,'' Staley said.