Dawn Staley is six wins away at South Carolina from completing a historic season.
The Gamecocks are looking to become the 10th women’s basketball team to go undefeated for an entire season as they enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 seed.
Staley’s team was challenged a few times this year, but always came through. The defending national champion will play Norfolk State in the first round of the tournament, the NCAA selection committee revealed Sunday night.
“We didn’t need a loss to learn from a close game,” Staley said. “Now we’re in a position where we can’t afford to lose.”
While the Gamecocks, led by star Aaliyah Boston, were the top seed for most of the season, several schools battled for the other No. 1 seeds, including Iowa, Indiana, Virginia Tech, Stanford and Utah. The Hawkeyes, led by electrifying guard Caitlin Clark, had been top-seeded twice before, in 1988 and 1992.
In the end, the committee chose the Hoosiers, Hokies and Cardinal. Indiana and Virginia Tech are both No. 1 seeds for the first time. Stanford has been the top seed 13 times, including in the last three tournaments.
“We spent a lot of time doing different things. certainly the number one line and the right home teams,” said selection committee chairman Lisa Peterson.
The tournament begins on Wednesday with two games from the top four. The complete frenzy begins with 16 games on Friday and 16 more the following day.
South Carolina might have the easiest path to the Final Four in Dallas, as it won’t have to travel far from home. The Gamecocks, who are the 18th team to reach the NCAA Tournament undefeated, will play their first two games on campus before potentially heading to Greenville, S.C. for 90 minutes for one of two regionals. The Gamecocks just won the Southeastern Conference Tournament at this location.
“It’s great. When they sent us to Stockton (Calif., in 2017), we thought it was a setback, but we ended up winning the national championship. So there are blessings in all types of situations,” Staley said. “We’re blessed, that Greenville was a region. We’re blessed to have done enough to be sent to this region and we have to make it work for us. We know it’s not going to be easy.”
The NCAA changed its format this season and has two regional sites for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds. Greenville hosts one and Seattle hosts the other. Once again, the top four teams in each region will host the first two rounds.
The other top teams in South Carolina’s bracket are No. 2 Maryland, No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 4 UCLA. The Gamecocks beat Maryland and UCLA this season.
“I like it. Some familiarity. Take care of Norfolk State and see where it takes us,” Staley said. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. Sometimes when you’re in a tournament like this, it’s always nice to play against somebody .”
Indiana is the other top seed in Greenville. Utah is the second seed with LSU third and Villanova fourth.
UConn, which was the last team to go undefeated and win the title in 2015-16, is looking to extend its own history and reach the Final Four for the 15th consecutive year. The Huskies had a tough year with injuries, but finally started to pick up heading into March. Star guard Azzie Fudd, who missed 22 games with a knee injury, returned for the Big East Tournament and helped the Huskies win it.
Geno Auriemma’s team, which has won a record 11 national championships, is seeded No. 2 in Seattle. The Hokies are the top seed in this portion of the bracket. Ohio State is No. 3 and Tennessee is No. 4. The Lady Vols have appeared in every NCAA Tournament since its inception in 1982.
The Cardinal is No. 1 in the other Seattle region. Iowa is No. 2, Duke is No. 3, and Texas is No. 4.
The Atlantic Coast Conference has eight teams in the tournament, with the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 each having seven. The Big 12 has six and the Big East five.
Four teams will be making their first appearance in the tournament: Southern Utah, Southeastern Louisiana, Sacramento State and St. Louis.
Columbia, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon were the first four teams to exit the field.
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25