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Gamecocks feel effects of coronavirus with NCAA decision to close tournament games to fans

Staley

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley may get her Gamecocks back to games in Greenville in two weeks, but they'll be played in front of empty seats. AP/Richard Shiro

COLUMBIA — Dawn Staley has always credited her fans. She refers to them as her “Fams,” (fans plus family) and has embraced, thanked and involved them in every step of her team’s success.

She’ll have to do without them in next week’s NCAA Tournament. A schedule that was set to greatly benefit No. 1 South Carolina in its quest for the women's national championship has been severely altered.

NCAA President Mark Emmert announced Wednesday that due to concerns over the spreading coronavirus, all games in the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments that begin next week will be closed to the general public. Only “essential staff and limited family attendance” will be allowed in the arenas with the teams.

The Gamecocks, SEC champions and sure to be the No. 1 overall seed for the tournament, were counting on playing four games in front of their fan base, which has led the country in attendance for the past five years. While the selection will not be announced until Monday, USC is very likely to play its first two games at Colonial Life Arena, then the next two at Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena, where it won the SEC Women’s Tournament last weekend.

Now the Gamecocks will have to do it in nearly empty gyms every step of the way. Emmert said he was looking to move the men’s Final Four from Mercedes-Benz Stadium to another location in Atlanta, but didn’t say if the women’s Final Four at New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center would also be affected.

“At a time with all of WBB and especially @GamecockWbb FAMs attendance is booming we have this … my heart goes out to all of you who supported this year and leading up to this NCAA tourney,” Staley Tweeted Wednesday. “The flip side is (we) want #COVID19 to beat it as soon as possible. Until then we feel u FAMs.”

Greenville stands to lose a substantial amount of money with the decision, since many USC fans who were planning on going may not want to stay in an Upstate hotel now. Messages to Greenville City Manager John McDonough and Chris Stone, President of VisitGreenvilleSC, were not immediately returned.

Columbia and CLA may also take a hit.

“It’s regrettable but understandable as we deal with this global pandemic,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “We care deeply about tourism and its impact on business and commerce in Columbia but our first priority is protecting the lives and health of our citizens.”

The NCAA responded after a day that saw nearly every conference alter its basketball tournament to allow no general public attendees, or were about to do so for the rest of this week. The Ivy League took the unprecedented step of cancelling all of its spring sports.

The SEC and ACC have disallowed the general public to attend the rest of their basketball tournaments. USC, in accordance with an SEC edict, has also adopted the practice for all of its sporting events until at least March 30.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

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