South Carolina top seed in women's NCAA Sioux Falls region, ASU No. 2
COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina's run to a second straight Final Four will go through Sioux Falls, South Dakota — and most likely against several familiar foes.
The Gamecocks (31-1) are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season and have been placed in a region with No. 2 seed Arizona State (25-6), No. 3 seed Ohio State (24-7), both losers to Dawn Staley's club in November.
The fourth seed in the region, Syracuse (25-7), lost to South Carolina in a second-round NCAA matchup in Columbia last year. Also lurking are two Southeastern Conference opponents in No. 5 seed Florida (22-8) and No. 7 seed Tennessee (19-13).
The Gamecocks open play Friday night against Jacksonville (22-10), which is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance. Should South Carolina advance, it would take on either No. 8 seed George Washington (26-6) or No. 9 Kansas State (18-12) on Sunday.
The other seeds in the region are No. 6 West Virginia (24-9), No. 10 Green Bay (28-4); No. 11 Princeton (23-5); No. 12 Albany (27-4); No. 13 Army (29-2); No. 14 Buffalo (20-13); and No. 15 New Mexico State (26-4).
For Staley and the Gamecocks, the path through the region is filled with past success. South Carolina finished 4-0 against opponents in Sioux Falls it has previously played this season, including an 88-80 victory against Ohio State in the season opener and a 60-58 win over Arizona State in a Hawaii tournament on Thanksgiving weekend.
Staley's said knowing her opponents down the line can be an advantage.
"It means were not starting from scratch and that they're familiar to us," she said.
Less familiar are the South Dakota surroundings. The Gamecocks and their fans had sought a spot in Lexington, Kentucky, a much closer venue to the large throngs that have followed South Carolina during its three-year run as SEC champions.
Staley was surprised at landing in Sioux Falls. That, however, doesn't change her team's mission.
"We've got to do our job," she said. "Open up on Friday night and take care of business."
Some things to watch in the Sioux Falls Region:
RISING BUCKEYES: This is Ohio State's highest seeding since the 2010 tournament when it was seeded No. 2 and fell to an SEC opponent, Mississippi State, in the second round. The Buckeyes might have the region's most exciting player in Kelsey Mitchell, who scored 36 points in the opener against South Carolina — the most points the Gamecocks gave up to any player all season.
SEC PLAYERS OF THE YEAR: The Gamecocks will rely on former SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell, who won the honor in 2014 and 2015, and A'ja Wilson, who took the award this season. Mitchell has played her best basketball in the past month and was named the SEC Tournament MVP earlier this month. Wilson, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, is the team's leader in points and blocked shots.
TENNESSEE'S FATE: The Lady Vols struggled through the indignities — at least by Tennessee standards — of 13 losses and falling out of the Top 25 for the first time in decades. Much of it will be forgotten with a deep run in the tourney. However, that could be difficult with a possible matchup against Arizona State on its home floor looming in the second round.
SYRACUSE'S RUN: When Syracuse played at South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament last season, head coach Quentin Hillsman said he was on the way to building a program that would not have to go on the road to start postseason play. A year later, the Orange have reached that goal and are hosting the first two rounds of the NCAAs.
SEC STRENGTH: Three of the record-tying nine SEC teams are in the Sioux Falls region: South Carolina, Florida and the Lady Vols. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley's team swept through the league — a 16-0 regular season followed by a 3-0 run through the league tournament — and believes all those tough, physical games helped propel so many SEC schools into the NCAAs. "A lot of SEC teams means that after beating each other up all season long, we got rewarded," Staley said.