COLUMBIA - The chaos had calmed. Reality replaced giddy celebration by the time Tiffany Mitchell joined her teammates near a quiet corner of the Colonial Life Arena media room Monday night.
Her coach was busy toeing the company line, surrounded by a throng of reporters just a few steps away. How did it feel to be the first South Carolina women's basketball team selected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? Great, Dawn Staley said. But there is more work to do. Pressure underlies their honor.
Maybe Staley would like to consider the No. 1 seed as just a number, but it's not. There is swagger and bravado that comes with being the alpha dog in March. And there's an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. It's what Mitchell felt as she joined her teammates in the corner, her excitement slipping out with a squeal.
"One seed," the SEC player of the year said with delight.
Her joy was met by happy giggles.
"It was just a great feeling to see our name finally pop across," Mitchell said. "I know (center Elem Ibiam's) hands were kind of getting clammy, and my knees were shaking. The anxiety was building up a lot. So to just see our name finally pop up, it was great."
It was that kind of night inside South Carolina's home gym.
The Gamecocks knew the sheer joy brought on by their first No. 1 seed in program history wouldn't overshadow the weighty expectations they'll face this month. South Carolina will host No. 16 seed Cal State Northridge at 5:30 p.m. Sunday in Seattle, and it will be expected to run up the score like a varsity team playing the junior varsity.
A No. 1 seed demands a trip to the Final Four, if not more. There's also a reason it's called "March Madness" this time of year. Upsets are the norm. Staley, who twice played in the Final Four at Virginia with No. 1-seeded teams, knows the treacherous path as well as anyone.
It's why Staley told the crowd of roughly 300 fans at Colonial Life Arena her team would exercise the "24-hour rule," appreciating their accomplishment only for the night before preparing for the Matadors.
"You can pretty much throw the seeds out when it's time to jump the ball up," Staley said. "Because everybody is going to be playing to stay alive, and we'll be in that same boat. So hopefully the team that can settle down and play the most poised and the way they've played all season long will win."
True, South Carolina will be grouped with 15 other teams trying to win the Stanford Regional, but a No. 1 seed makes their path considerably more realistic. The Gamecocks are a collision course with No. 2 seed Stanford on the Cardinal's home court in the Elite Eight. That's no easy task, yet a worthwhile price to avoid playing undefeated UConn and Notre Dame.
South Carolina entered the night projected as a No. 2 seed in the South Bend Regional. Even Staley said she expected to be a No. 2 seed. After USC won its first outright SEC championship, she thought the Gamecocks had to advance to the SEC tournament title game just to have a shot at a No. 1.
When Tennessee was announced as a No. 1 seed in the Louisville Regional midway through ESPN's selection show, it seemed inevitable South Carolina would fall to the two line. Many experts expected the final No. 1 seed to come down to the two SEC opponents.
Instead, half the No. 1 seeds will come from the SEC - a remarkable feat for the league. The last time the conference posted two No. 1 seeds was with Tennessee and LSU in 2005.
"I think it says that this is a complicated and very difficult conference to compete in," junior forward and Goose Creek native Aleighsa Welch said. "We have a lot of great teams and great competition. You have a dogfight on your hands every single night playing in the SEC. So it's just great to see so many teams have been able to come out of this tournament."
As fulfilling as Monday night was for a program on the rise, the final destination is what matters.
It's been six years since the SEC has sent a team to the Final Four. Now, the Gamecocks hope to end that drought. And, if chalk reigns, they have a navigable path.
Still, Staley recognized her program had taken an important step.
"A lot of times, people don't want to give newcomers their due," Staley said. "I'm glad the committee gave someone like us, the University of South Carolina, the No. 1 seed because it gives hope to some of those other programs that are teetering on being a very good program. It goes to show if you do the work, if you put the work in, if you become successful, that's what's at the end of the tunnel. Obviously, we did that, but we surely have to continue it."
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