COLUMBIA — Talk about anti-climactic.
South Carolina, Clemson and the other 62 teams in this year’s women's NCAA Tournament knew who and where they would be playing four hours before they were supposed to. An inadvertent leak posted the entire bracket on ESPNU well before the scheduled 7 p.m. bracket reveal, leading to a quick apology from the network and a show starting two hours earlier.
“We were supposed to watch it at 7,” USC point guard Ty Harris said. “We were sitting together while it was coming out at 5, so we were discussing it.”
The Gamecocks, desiring to watch as a team with their legion of fans, weren’t at Williams-Brice Stadium for the actual reveal. But it was a party atmosphere anyway as they claimed their eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and got each of the items on their wish list.
“Make sure you act surprised!,” urged emcee Khadijah Sessions, as the cameras caught the Gamecocks dancing, screaming and carrying on.
They weren’t shocked due to the leaked bracket, but they were pleased just the same.
USC (21-9) is in the Greensboro, N.C., Regional, the same spot from where it advanced to Dawn Staley’s first Final Four in 2015. The Gamecocks will “host” their own four-team pod at Charlotte’s Halton Arena (Colonial Life Arena is hosting the men's NCAA Tournament this weekend) and begin it by playing 13-seed Belmont at 1:45 p.m. on Friday.
“We’re extremely excited, one in that we get to host, although we’ll have to travel to Charlotte to do it, but the NCAA committee has never given a waiver for what has taken place for our program this year,” Staley said. “We’ve been told no a lot of times in the past. Here, we were told a lot of yesses.”
Five-seed Florida State (23-8) and 12-seed Bucknell (28-5) fill out the pod.
The nine-seed Tigers (19-12) were sent to Starkville, Miss., in the Portland, Ore., Regional, where they will play eighth-seeded South Dakota (28-5) at 7 p.m. on Friday. The survivor of top seed Mississippi State (30-2) and 16-seed Southern (21-11) awaits the winner.
The Gamecocks earned a four-seed in the tournament, a first-game SEC Tournament loss likely benefiting them, although it cost USC a shot at an unprecedented fifth straight tournament championship. Before the SEC Tournament, USC was considered a third seed and projected to be sent to Portland, Ore., should it make the Sweet 16.
Instead, they have the chance to play up to four games in front of a heavily garnet-and-black fan base, which will doubtless grab all the tickets it can for two games within 90 minutes of Columbia and the next two games within three hours.
To get to Greensboro, the Gamecocks may have to go through Florida State, which USC beat to reach each of its Final Fours. The Seminoles were also set to face the Gamecocks last year until they were blown out in the Round of 32 by Buffalo, which advanced to face the Gamecocks in Albany, N.Y.
Also in Greensboro could be another local favorite, three-seed N.C. State, and Baylor, the top seed in the regional. Baylor hammered USC 94-69 in Columbia on Dec. 2.
Clemson posted its first winning season in 15 years as coach Amanda Butler re-energized a team that had suffered since longtime coach Jim Davis was forced out in 2005. A staple of the NCAA Tournament under Davis, the Tigers became one of the worst programs in the ACC after he left.
Butler, a year after being fired at Florida, found a group of players eager for success and willing to buy in to whatever she wanted. Clemson made its living on defense, improved by eight wins from last year in conference and overall play and Butler was named ACC coach of the year.
“Amanda’s done a great job,” Staley said in congratulations to her rival coach, whom she also faced numerous times when Butler was at Florida. “Sometimes when you step away from the thing that you love, you come back rejuvenated. She’s put that energy into her team and her players.”