USC Women Ready To Tip Off NCAA Tournament

By USC SID

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (USC SID) — 3/2 South Carolina, the top seed in the Sioux Falls Region, opens NCAA Tournament action on Fri., March 18, against Jacksonville at Colonial Life Arena. Playing in the second game of the session, the Gamecocks and Dolphins will tip off 30 minutes after the conclusion of the 5 p.m. game between George Washington and Kansas State. The Gamecocks drew the overall No. 2 seed nationally and are playing for a return trip to the NCAA Final Four.

GAME NOTABLES

• South Carolina is playing in its fifth-straight NCAA Tournament, the longest stretch in program history. Nine current Gamecocks have a combined 65 games of experience in the NCAA Tournament with Tiffany Mitchell’s 14.4 scoring average leading the way. The senior guard has shot 41.5 percent from the field in her 10 career games, including 48.1 percent (13-of-27) from 3-point range. Junior centerAlaina Coates is not far behind at 14.3 points per game to go with her team-best 8.9 rebounds per outing in her career eight game at the event, which includes Greensboro Region MVP honors last season.

• Staley has challenged her bench to top that of its opponents, and the group has delivered, outscoring its counterparts 25 times this season, including the last six games. Leading that charge is Bianca Cuevas with her 6.6 points per game, including 8.8 points per game over the last five outings.

• South Carolina has out-scored its opponent at the free throw line 27 times this season and has made more free throws (516) than its opponent has attempted (770).

• The Gamecock defense has been locked in lately, even moreso than usual. Over the past five games, opponents have scored just 49.4 points per game after entering the stretch allowing just 56.8 points per outing. This season, opposing teams have scored fewer than 60 points 20 times, including seven ranked foes.

• Senior guard Tiffany Mitchell has steadily lifted her scoring average as the season winds down. Over the last 10 games, the First-Team All-SEC selection is tied for the team lead with 15.8 points per game on 40.3 percent shooting, including 38.2 percent from 3-point range, 2.7 assists and 1.8 steals. The numbers are even more impressive over the last five games — 16.6 points, 3.2 assists and 2.2 steals per games. In her first 22 games, Mitchell averaged 14.1 points, 2.5 assists and 1.7 steals.

• Senior guard Khadijah Sessions’ lockdown defense played a huge role in the Gamecocks’ SEC Tournament and the team’s overall success this season. Her offense has made more of an impact this season as well, delivering in volume — averaging 6.7 points this season compared to 4.5 last season — and in key moments helping to power six close games to victory, including five against ranked opponents. (More on page 9)

• Sophomore forward A’ja Wilson was named SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, becoming just the second player in league history to bring home both awards. On every national player of the year watch list, she is 29th in the nation in field goal percentage (.544) and 12th in blocks (3.1). Wilson also ranks in the SEC’s top five in scoring, rebounding and double-doubles.

• Junior center Alaina Coates is the SEC’s top rebounder and ranks 22nd in the nation at 10.1 boards per game. She is the only player in the SEC to average a double-double, which she did both overall (11.6 ppg/10.1 rpg) and in conference play (11.2 ppg/11.1 rpg). Her 17 double-doubles this season rank 15th in the nation and include 10 in SEC action. Coates is also just the second Gamecock ever to amass 1,000 points and 800 rebounds prior to her senior season.

THE FIVE-SECOND COUNT

In looking for their second-straight NCAA Final Four appearance, the 2015-16 Gamecocks have shown a balanced approach and an ability to “stay in character,” as head coach Dawn Staley would say. South Carolina is among the nation’s top 25 in scoring margin, rebounding margin, field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense and blocked shots. Known best for its trio of double-digit scoring First-Team All-SEC selections, South Carolina boasts a roster in which every Gamecock has embraced her role and has stepped up when her team has needed her most. The combination has South Carolina listed among the top three in the nation all season and yielded a perfect 16-0 SEC regular season and three more wins to repeat as SEC Tournament champs.

BY THE NUMBERS

15.7 Points in the paint more per game scored by the Gamecocks than their opponents
22 Points needed by forward A’ja Wilson to reach 1,000 in her career, leaving her the chance to become just the second Gamecock to reach the milestone in her sophomore season
24.1 Free throw attempts per game by South Carolina, compared to 14.5 by their opponents
49.4 Points per game allowed by the Gamecocks over the last five games

JACKSONVILLE SERIES NOTES

South Carolina is 2-0 against Jacksonville with both games coming at Colonial Life Arena. The most recent meeting between the two came in Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley’s first season, resulting in a 58-50 win by the home team on Dec. 30, 2008. The teams first met four seasons earlier, opening the series with a 79-54 South Carolina victory on Nov. 27, 2004. Jacksonville (22-10) is making its NCAA Tournament debut after upending two-time defending Atlantic Sun champion Florida Gulf Coast in the A-Sun Tournament final.

NCAA TOURNAMENT TALLY

South Carolina is in its 13th NCAA Tournament and fifth straight under head coach Dawn Staley, making this season’s senior class just the third in program history to play in the NCAA Tournament every season. South Carolina earned its third No. 1 seed in as many seasons The Gamecocks are 17-12 overall in the NCAA Tournament with six Sweet 16 appearances, highlighted by last season’s run to the program’s first NCAA Final Four. In her 16th season as a head coach, Staley has taken a team to the NCAA Tournament 10 times. She is 10-10 at the event, including a 9-4 mark at South Carolina.

GAMECOCKS AGAINST THE FIELD

South Carolina has faced 13 teams that made this season’s NCAA Tournament, including four other teams in the Sioux Falls Region. The Gamecocks went 17-1 against those 13 teams, which includes eight SEC foes, and 6-1 against teams seeded in the top three in their region. In addition to their eight SEC rivals in the field — Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas A&M — the Gamecocks posted non-conference wins against Arizona State, Hawaii, Ohio State and UCLA, while dropping their game against UConn. In the 18 games against the NCAA Field, the Gamecocks averaged 69.8 points on 43.7 percent field goal shooting, while allowing 59.9 points per game on 36.7 percent shooting. South Carolina out-rebounded those teams by 3.6 per game and averaged 8.8 steals and 5.6 blocks. The Gamecocks significantly out-scored those teams at the free throw line, making 17.1 per game to their opponents’ 10.6. A’ja Wilson averaged a team-best 16.9 points per game to go with 9.1 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. Alaina Coates averaged just shy of a double-double in those 18 games with 10.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.

SEC TOURNAMENT REWIND

South Carolina capped its 16-0 SEC regular-season record with its second-straight SEC Tournament title. The Gamecocks joined Tennessee (1999-2000 and 2010-11) and Georgia (1983-84) as the only programs to win both the regular-season and tournament titles in back-to-back seasons. Those three programs are also the only ones to go undefeated in he SEC regular season and win the SEC Tournament — Georgia in 1986 (9-0 season, 3-0 tournament), Tennessee in 1994 (11-0 season, 3-0 tournament) and in 2011 (16-0 season, 3-0 tournament).

NATIONAL RECOGNITION

A trio of Gamecocks have captured attention in the national player of the year race throughout the season.Alaina Coates, Tiffany Mitchell and A’ja Wilson all appeared on the Wade Watch List, released last week. Mitchell and Wilson are on the Wooden Award Final Ballot and are Naismith Trophy semifinalists. Head coachDawn Staley is a semifinalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year award as well. Mitchell is also a finalist for the Dawn Staley Award and the Senior CLASS award. ESPN released its All-America teams last week, tapping Wilson with first-team honors and placing Mitchell on the third team.

PUSHING FORWARD

South Carolina sophomore A’ja Wilson is among the nation’s most dynamic and forwards, even as her game is still growing. While it is impossible to truly measure players across the nation based solely on their averages as everyone plays different schedules, performances when facing ranked opponents may draw the most direct parallel. Measured against the other frontcourt players on the Wooden Award Final Ballot, of which there are only two sophomores, Wilson proves to be among the most prolific and efficient scorers even as she is the only one averaging less than 30 minutes played (29.7) and facing the most games against ranked foes (14). While her 19.1 points per game against ranked foes is third among the group, trailing UConn’s Breanna Stewart (22.9) and Michigan State’s Aerial Powers (21.9), but Wilson’s 0.644 points per minute played are just behind Powers’ 0.646 and ahead of Stewart’s 0.638. Wilson is the third-ranked rebounder of the group, pulling down 9.7 boards per game against ranked opponents, compared to 12.3 per game by Oregon’s Jillian Alleyne and 10.0 by Powers.

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