March Madness: It's still South Carolina vs. the field, but the field is coming for the crown
GREENVILLE, S.C. — Kamilla Cardoso doesn’t know how to answer the question, so from her spot on the exercise bike in the bustling South Carolina locker room she crowdsources it.
“Whatchu think? You think the vibes are different?” the smiling 6-foot-7 shot-blocking star asks Raven Johnson and Laeticia Amihere on each side of her. The undefeated reigning champions had just ousted No. 4 UCLA, 59-43, in the Greenville 1 regional semifinals on Saturday to reach the Elite Eight for the fourth time in the last five tournaments.
“Yeah. The stakes are higher,” Amihere quickly answered. “We don’t want to go home.”
South Carolina came into the season overwhelming favorites for a repeat and went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in The Associated Press poll. Few teams have stayed within single digits by the final buzzer. Kim Mulkey, whose LSU Tigers are playing in the Greenville 2 regional, reiterated this week she still feels the competition is “South Carolina, and everybody else.” Nothing through the halfway point of the NCAA tournament has shown anything different.
“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Amihere told Yahoo Sports. “We came in No. 1, we’ve been that since we’ve won, so the stakes are higher because we have a bigger target on our backs.”
But being an overwhelming favorite doesn’t mean as much as it did a couple decades ago when Tennessee ruled or even seven years ago when Connecticut finished off its four consecutive titles. They and Southern California are the only programs to repeat. UConn won’t be in the Gamecocks’ way this year, though, after Ohio State snapped the Huskies’ 14-season Final Four streak.
Women’s basketball is growing more equally around the country, parity is clear and transfers are making immediate impacts to put their programs deep into the tournament.
“It does make you a little bit nervous when you’re in the driver’s seat, so to speak, being the No. 1 seed, that teams are lurking,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “Does it force you to just tighten up a little bit more your game plan and making sure that you’re crossing every 't' and dotting every 'i'? Yes, it does. But for me, I’m going to rely on the habits that we formed all season long and if we do that, I mean, we’ve won every game.”
The Gamecocks (35-0) watch March Madness games together and they see the upsets. Two No. 1 seeds were out of the tournament by the Sweet 16. They walk the halls of Bon Secours Wellness Arena seeing the logos of Miami, a No. 9 seed playing LSU in the Elite Eight on Sunday night.
It’s the old women’s sports adage: If you can see it, you can be it. And these higher seeds have seen plenty this March alone, even when it doesn’t pan out by the end. Underdogs have given the favorites tight contests every night, some of which are followed by the lower seeds breathing a sigh of relief.
“I feel like people have more confidence because there’s been a lot of upsets lately,” Amihere said. “The lower teams are getting a lot more confident, so we need to make sure we’re defending our title.”
South Carolina did it with ease on Saturday afternoon, locking down UCLA to 15 points in the first half. The Bruins led in their November meeting until late in the game, and this contest was circled as one to test South Carolina’s mettle.
UCLA head coach Cori Close said her team came in confident based on that first meeting, but failed to be the aggressors they had been before against a team that’s “maybe one of the best defense and rebounding teams in the last decade.”
“If you allow them to play the way that they want to play and never use it against them, you’re going to create a long night, and that’s exactly what we did,” Close said.
South Carolina showed it has everything it needs and then some, emptying its full 14-player roster for minutes. Its offense came alive in the third quarter with 25 points, matching its first-half total, and it won nearly every key category. Its six blocks, two from the always-smiling Cardoso, electrified the roaring Gamecock crowd.
Awaiting South Carolina is another rematch in No. 2 seed Maryland, which defeated a depleted Notre Dame squad earlier in the day. The Terrapins are much more confident than they were in the 81-56 loss during the season’s first week. The roster of transfers has had four months to come together, showcased by another outstanding performance from the trio of Diamond Miller, Abby Meyers and Shyanne Sellers.
They have their own plans to take down another No. 1 seed, this one the biggest of all.
“I say this all the time, because it’s so true,” said Aliyah Boston, who scored 8 points with 14 rebounds in 28 minutes. “You can’t look at the number in front of somebody and think, ‘Oh, well, because we’re ranked No. 1, whatever number is under that, it doesn’t matter.’ Because they’re coming to compete for 40 minutes. So yes, there were two No. 1 teams that went down, but that’s not really our focus because we don’t want to get distracted and worry about things. We just continue to play our game.”
The seniors, which include top-projected WNBA Draft pick Boston, have lost only eight games in their entire collegiate careers. Their freshman year, the NCAA tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic while they were ranked No. 1 in the country. They reached the Final Four as sophomores and won the championship as juniors. Two-thirds of their careers have been played as the country’s top team.
“It’s hard being at the top,” senior Zia Cooke told Yahoo Sports. “I think it’s way harder being at the top than it is anything else. But this is something that we’re ready for. We’ve been No. 1 in the country before and we’ve been in moments like this before. I definitely think that we’re prepared for anybody we have to play and it’s nothing for us.”
Cooke agreed that the vibes are different heading into the Elite Eight than in previous years because there’s a calmness. An opponent going on a run doesn’t matter; they’ll build their own. They’ve been here, know how to do it. Even when the offense isn’t clicking early, which Staley described as a “tendency to shoot ourselves in our own foot” by rushing the offense.
Offensive shooting woes have hurt, but not broken, South Carolina before. Against UCLA, Cooke was 2-of-10, missing all three 3-pointers, and Kierra Fletcher and Johnson combined to shoot 2-of-9. It was a defensive showcase that lacked any real offensive rhythm early. Still, it got the job done for another day.
“Right now, it’s all about being able to win games,” Cooke said. “If it’s ugly, if it’s pretty, it doesn’t matter, as long as it happens.”
There are seven other higher-seeded teams still coming for them.