Gamecocks begin title defense Friday night vs. NC A&T
COLUMBIA, S.C. — No. 7/7 South Carolina opens its NCAA Tournament Fri., March 16, as a No. 2 seed in the Albany Region, facing North Carolina A&T at 7:30 p.m. in the second game of the double-header at Colonial Life Arena. The reigning national champions, the Gamecocks (26-6, 12-4 SEC) are looking to pick up where they left off at last week’s SEC Tournament, where they defeated three ranked teams in three days to grab their fourth-straight championship at the event.
SOUTH CAROLINA NOTABLES
>> This season marks the fourth that South Carolina has hosted the opening rounds of NCAA Tournament action with the Gamecocks advancing to the Sweet 16 in each of the previous three seasons they began the event in Columbia. South Carolina drew over 8,000 fans per tournament game in each of those seasons.
>> The Gamecocks are riding the momentum of three wins over ranked opponents en route to their fourth-straight SEC Tournament title – the first program in league history to win four in a row. While A’ja Wilson led the way averaging a double-double off the bench en route to tournament MVP honors, four other Gamecocks averaged at least 8.7 points with three turning in at least 5.0 rebounds per game. The offense also rediscovered its efficiency in Nashville, shooting 51.0 percent from the field over the three games, including 56.5 percent against #19/18 Georgia and 51.0 percent against #2/2 Mississippi State to net over half of their field goal attempts against a ranked team for the first time since December.
>> Playing in the toughest league in the nation, South Carolina has dominated the SEC for the past five seasons, claiming either the regular-season or tournament championship every season. The Gamecocks average 14.2 SEC wins per season during that stretch.
>> National Player of the Year favorite A’ja Wilson is in the final stretch of an illustrious career that has delivered heart-pounding plays and consistent production. Wilson’s scoring has been on a steady climb throughout her career even as more and more defensive attention is locked in on her. A deeper look at her numbers show that her career scoring average of 17.1 points has been built as much in the toughest games as it has the more routing outings. In her four seasons, the versatile forward averages 17.7 points in 54 games against ranked opponents. Against top-10 foes, she turns in 16.1 points per game in her career, including 18.0 points per game against such opponents in the last two seasons. South Carolina has won 69.2 percent of its games against top-10 opponents in Wilson’s career.
>> While Wilson may have picked up the hardware for the SEC Tournament victory, it was the starting frontcourt of Alexis Jennings and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan that set the tone early in the tournament and in each of the three games. The duo combined to average 23.3 points and 11.7 rebounds over the three games. Their dominance in the tournament opener against #12/12 Tennessee had the Lady Vols on their heels before Wilson even got on the court.
> Sophomore point guard Tyasha Harris collected SEC Second-Team honors from both the league coaches and the Associated Press for her mastery of balancing her instinct to distribute to her teammates with Staley’s insistence that she score more on her own. Elevating her assist game to rank 20th in the nation with 6.3 per outing, Harris nearly doubled her freshman year scoring average with 11.0 points per game this season. She has been most effective when confidently calling her own number in the tightest moments in big games, including the SEC Tournament title outing.
South Carolina is in its 15th NCAA Tournament and seventh straight under head coach Dawn Staley, making this season’s senior class just the fifth in program history to play in the NCAA Tournament every season and the third straight to do so. The Gamecocks are 25-13 overall in the NCAA Tournament with eight Sweet 16 appearances, two Final Four showings and the 2017 National Championship. In her 18th season as a head coach, Staley has taken a team to the NCAA Tournament 11 times. She is 19-11 at the event, including an 17-5 mark at South Carolina.
USC Athletics contributed to the writing of this article.