USC women back in NCAAs for first time since 2003
COLUMBIA -- A few hundred people sat silently in a banquet room at Colonial Life Arena on Monday night, staring at the television screens that were about to reveal who and where South Carolina's women's basketball team would play in the NCAA tournament.
Fourth-year coach Dawn Staley had waited so long for this moment, having taken over a floundering program that went 10-18 in her first year, then steadily climbed to 14-15, 18-15 and, this year, 23-9 and 10-6 in the Southeastern Conference.
Staley and her players knew they would make the NCAA tournament this year, so USC held a party for fans to celebrate the bid. And as it turned out, none of them had to wait very long Monday for it to become official. USC's matchup with Eastern Michigan at 11:05 a.m. Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind., was the third game announced on the Selection Show.
The room exploded with cheers and chants of "U-S-C!" Not since USC's last NCAA appearance, in 2003, have the Gamecocks' fans been able to celebrate women's basketball success of this magnitude. This year was the first time since 2003 that USC finished with a winning conference record.
Within a few minutes of the party dispersing, Staley planned to retreat with her staff to their offices and begin preparing for Eastern Michigan, which received a No. 12 seed and an automatic bid by winning the Mid-American Conference tournament.
This is the second-ever tournament appearance for Eastern Michigan, and first since 2004. USC, which received a No. 5 seed,
is in the tournament for the ninth time, and just the third time since 1991. The Gamecocks' best showing: an Elite Eight run, as a No. 3 seed, in 2002.
If they beat Eastern Michigan, they will play the winner of No. 4 Purdue (the host team) and No. 13 San Diego State on Monday. And the Gamecocks are intent on doing more than just participating in the tournament.
"We all said it: We don't want to go to this tournament just to go," said freshman forward and leading rebounder Aleighsa Welch, a Goose Creek High graduate.
"We want to win. We want to make a name for ourselves. We want to put teams on their heels. And we want to let the whole nation know that South Carolina is a great basketball team."
Staley is well aware nobody could have said that about USC in 2008, when she arrived from Temple. But she figured this year had potential, largely due to the leadership of senior guards Markeshia Grant and La'Keisha Sutton, who are her top two scorers.
All season, USC's players and coaches wore T-shirts that read "I Believe" on the front and "The Time Is Now" on the back.
Before the Selection Show began, Staley worked the room, smiling wide and hugging fans.
"This journey has been extremely long for us -- long and hard," she said. "It didn't look pretty four years ago. We're going to be here, hopefully, every single year."