COLUMBIA — They’re in the midst of the greatest run in SEC women’s basketball since Tennessee at the height of Pat Summitt, having now earned seven championship trophies in a four-year span. But it’s clear Dawn Staley feels some minds still need convincing that South Carolina belongs among the elite.
“I feel like we can be out there (with anybody). I don't know if the basketball experts feel like that. We're not one of the programs that they talk about when it comes to competing for a national championship, nor are our players talked about in a national spotlight,” USC’s head coach said after Sunday’s SEC Tournament final in Greenville.
“A'ja Wilson is the best player in the country. Let's just get that out there. She is the best player in the country. If you look at her numbers when we're playing ranked teams, I don't think any numbers compare to what she does. We're going to keep flying under the radar.”
The SEC Player of the Year, the 6-5 Wilson certainly looked like a first-team All-American over three days at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, averaging 19.6 points to help the Gamecocks win their third consecutive tournament crown. Now USC awaits its fate in the NCAA Tournament, in which the Gamecocks are expected to be a No. 1 regional seed for the fourth consecutive year.
South Carolina (27-4), ranked No. 4 in the newest AP Top 25 poll released Monday, will host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament at Colonial Life Arena. The question becomes where the Gamecocks will be sent in the regionals, where they were upset last season in Sioux Falls, S.D.
USC could be facing another long trip this year. ESPN’s most recent projection forecasts the Gamecocks as the No. 1 seed in the regional in Stockton, Calif. Notre Dame, ranked a spot higher in the AP poll and winners of both the ACC regular-season and tournament crowns, is projected to go to Lexington, Ky., the closest regional site to Columbia.
Connecticut and Baylor are seen as locks to play in the regionals in Bridgeport, Conn., and Oklahoma City, respectively. Shipping USC to Stockton would dilute a fan following that leads the nation in average home attendance, and for Sunday’s final drew a crowd of 7,715, largest since Tennessee won the 2012 tournament in Nashville, Tenn.
The Gamecocks will learn their NCAA path for certain on March 13, when the women’s tournament field is released at 7 p.m. on ESPN.
“We're going to keep getting better. We are going to keep making the most of the opportunities that we have,” Staley said. “Wherever we're sent (in the NCAA Tournament), we're going to continue to play and use the experiences of playing in the SEC to our advantage.”