COLUMBIA — After the cheering fans quieted, Dawn Staley stood behind a podium and rattled off the list of thank-yous, as if she had done this before, because she had.
For the second straight year, Staley and her South Carolina women’s basketball team knew they were solidly in the NCAA tournament, and celebrated with a public party in a hospitality room at Colonial Life Arena that is named for legendary USC men’s basketball coach Frank McGuire.
Staley has quickly established herself as one of the best women’s basketball coaches in school history. On Monday night, after the tournament’s field was announced, she looked across a packed room and saw the fruits of her labor, then had to consider how things will get no easier.
The Gamecocks received a No. 4 seed and will play No. 13 South Dakota State, the Summit League champion, at 4:10 p.m. Saturday in Boulder, Colo.
If the Gamecocks win, they will play No. 5 Colorado or No. 12 Kansas. USC is in the Norfolk, Va., Region. The top of its bracket is No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 16 Tennessee-Martin, No. 8 Miami and No. 9 Iowa.
Last year, USC was a No. 5 seed and traveled to Purdue, where it beat No. 12 Eastern Michigan and No. 4 Purdue, before falling to No. 1 Stanford in the Sweet 16 in Fresno, Calif.
USC would have been a strong candidate to host a first- and second-round site. But the sites are determined in advance, and because the Confederate flag flies in front of South Carolina’s State House, the NCAA refuses to award predetermined hosting sites to the state’s venues. Baseball is an exception because its regional sites are not predetermined.
As Staley thanked fans Monday night, she credited them with creating a strong home-court environment, but realized she wouldn’t get to enjoy it at the most important time of the year.
“Hopefully, there are some inexpensive (plane) tickets to get to Boulder,” she told fans.
Not hosting certainly doesn’t detract from Staley’s accomplishments at USC. The Gamecocks have improved in all five of her seasons: 10-18 to 14-15, 18-15, 25-10 and 24-7. In the Southeastern Conference, they have gone from 2-12 to 7-9, 8-8, 10-6 and 11-5. The past two seasons combined, they are 9-7 on the road in SEC play.
Staley and her players believe SEC road success and winning on Purdue’s court last year to make the Sweet 16 will prepare the Gamecocks for what they could face in Boulder.
“Last year’s team, it was the novelty of playing in the NCAA tournament, playing on somebody’s home court,” Staley said. “We have that under our belts, and we will definitely use it to our advantage.”
Said senior point guard Ieasia Walker: “It helps us bring confidence, just within ourselves, because we know we’re not going to have a lot of fans. We did have a good crowd travel with us last year, but I’m expecting less than that this year. It’s going to be a little bit harder to focus so far away from home.”
Last year was USC’s first tournament trip since 2003, when it went 1-1 a year after making the Elite Eight — its deepest ever run. The Gamecocks were a No. 3 seed in 2002, tied for their highest ever, and they hosted the first two rounds that year. This year marks USC’s 10th tournament trip. The Gamecocks also made the Sweet 16 as a No. 5 seed in 1990.
Though they wouldn’t have to travel nearly as far as last year if they made the Sweet 16 again, there is the matter of altitude in Boulder, which is no small factor. Columbia’s elevation is 292 feet. Boulder’s is 5,430. South Dakota State is at 1,621 feet.
Both Staley and Walker have played at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs (elevation: 6,010). Training at that altitude is beneficial, but it requires adjusting.
“There’s a noticeable difference at the beginning of practices and games, but you settle down after you get that first heave of coughing,” Staley said. “Hopefully, we can establish that and get that over and done with in practices.”
Said Walker: “I had to drink a lot of water to really get used to it. When I came home, I just felt like I could run through a brick wall. The conditioning there is so much better for you. When I went back (home) to New York, I just felt like Superwoman or something.”
South Carolina’s Aleighsa Welch (left) and Ashley Bruner×
South Carolina forward Ashley Bruner (21) reacts after sinking a basket during the first half of a women's NCAA college basketball game against Alabama in the Southeastern Conference tournament, Thursday, March 7, 2013, in Duluth, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)×
Forward Ashley Bruner and the Gamecocks will play South Dakota State in the first round Saturday.×