The South Carolina women’s basketball team’s quest for back-to-back national titles begins Friday.
The Gamecocks spent the entire season at the top of the national rankings and enters the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, playing No. 16 seed Norfolk State in the first round at 2 p.m. in Colonial Life Arena.
South Carolina enters the tournament with a perfect 32-0 record, including going undefeated in SEC play and won the program’s seventh conference tournament title.
For the Gamecocks’ talented group of seniors, this tournament is their last dance. The group, which includes SEC Player of the Year forward Aliyah Boston, could become one of most successful classes ever based on this tournament.
“Just knowing what those freshies came in and did for this program, it means a lot,” redshirt freshman guard Raven Johnson said. “They show us every day what leaders are (and) what it takes to get to this level.”
The team is hoping to join just three other schools as programs to successfully defend their title, and the first since UConn in 2015 and 2016.
“There’s pressure, but there’s not as much pressure, meaning we had to win last year,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “But this year, they’ve learned how to win and how to carry that pressure each and every game.”
Winning it all would also make South Carolina the fifth program to ever complete an undefeated season, joining UConn, Tennessee, Baylor and Texas.
“It definitely gets harder, especially compared to last year and being undefeated,” senior guard Brea Beal said. “We know what it felt like to win. We know what it feels like to lose in this situation, so we want the same feeling we had last year.”
However, the journey starts here in Columbia against a series of opponents the Gamecocks have yet to face while potential rematches lie further along in the bracket.
“There’s some familiarity as you go down the bracket,” Staley said. “But first things first is Norfolk State.”
Should South Carolina advance Friday, it would face the winner of the game between No. 8 seed South Florida and No. 9 seed Marquette in Columbia on Sunday.
From there, Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games for the Gamecocks would be in Greenville at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, where South Carolina won the SEC less than two weeks ago.
“We’re blessed that Greenville was a region,” Staley said. “We’re blessed that we did enough to get sent to this region, and we have to make it work for us, but we know it won’t be easy.”
The Gamecocks are 3-0 against teams in the Greenville 1 regional this season. The team previously beat No. 2 seed Maryland, No. 4 seed UCLA and No. 11 seed Mississippi State.
“We got a first round, got a second round before we even have to see them,” Staley said. “They have to get through their brackets, so anything can happen in March. But there’s a lot of familiarity, yet all the teams are playing a lot different than they did in November, December.”
There are more familiar opponents outside of South Carolina’s region that the team could see down the road in a potential Final Four or championship game. The Gamecocks have defeated 12 total teams in the NCAA tournament, including fellow No. 1 seed Stanford, No. 2 seed UConn, No. 3 seed LSU and No. 4 seed Tennessee.
South Carolina has yet to face the other two No. 1 seeds, Virginia Tech and Indiana, though. Both of those squads would have to make it to the national championship game to get their shot at the Gamecocks.
“We’re just thinking about the next game, and we have to win the next game,” Staley said. “That’s been the mentality all season long.”