COLUMBIA - It may be late March, when season-long dreams are grasped or dashed depending on the ball's bounce, but South Carolina hasn't forgotten December.
It was then, before the Gamecocks began their historic run to an outright SEC championship, when South Carolina's women's basketball team got its first taste of disappointment this season. The Gamecocks carried an undefeated record and plenty of momentum to Myrtle Beach, where they met border rival and nationally ranked North Carolina.
They left with their first of only four losses this season.
The stakes will be unquestionably higher when No. 1 seed South Carolina plays No. 4 North Carolina at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Sweet 16 on ESPN2.
They're playing for more than bragging rights, with a ticket to the Stanford Regional final going to the winner. For both teams, the Final Four feels close enough to reach.
Still, the Tar Heels add an extra dimension to this Sweet 16 matchup.
"I think it's good that there's a redemption factor to it," Staley said on South Carolina's athletics website this week.
A rivalry based on geography will be played in an odd setting - three time zones and more than 2,600 miles away.
The winner could face regional host and No. 2 seed Stanford on the Cardinal's home court.
It's unlikely either side is thinking that far ahead. First, they must get past each other.
South Carolina is led by sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell, the SEC Player of the Year. Mitchell averages 15.6 points per game. South Carolina junior Aleighsa Welch - a Goose Creek native - adds 13.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
Four Tar Heels score in double figures, led by Diamond DeShields' 17.9 points per game. Three of North Carolina's top four scorers are freshmen.
More than 100 days have passed since their most recent meeting. Both teams have changed since then, evolving over the course of a long season. Regardless, Staley will pay close attention to the game film, combing it to see if any slight advantage can be gained.
"I think you do look at the film. You just cover all your ground," Staley said. "You've got a chance to play against them. Saw some things that worked, some things that didn't work, but when you're playing a team like North Carolina, it's going to come down to you stopping them in transition. You not turning the ball over, and if you do, you have to defend your turnovers. Then, lastly, you've got to rebound the basketball.
"I think if you cover those three areas, you put yourself in a position to win the basketball game."
And, for South Carolina, find some sweet redemption along the way.
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