Gamecocks survive, Beavers thrive
SEATTLE -- South Carolina is new to this whole No. 1 seed thing, so maybe the Gamecocks didn't fully understand the deal.
You aren't really supposed to come out and play a close, competitive game in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The way it usually works is you overmatch and overwhelm the No. 16 seed and get yourself warmed up for a long tournament run. Nice and easy, no drama required.
You shouldn't have to look up at the scoreboard and see Cal State Northridge within four points well into the second half. And the Matadors certainly shouldn't be within two possessions of a tie with less than four minutes to go.
To be fair, Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley doesn't care about any of that.
"We did the thing that a No. 1 seed needs to do," Staley said. "We won our game."
Indeed, South Carolina opened the NCAA tournament with a closer-than-expected 73-58 victory against the Matadors at Alaska Airlines Arena on Sunday afternoon.
In Tuesday's second round, they will take on ninth-seeded Oregon State, a 55-36 winner against Middle Tennessee, at 9:30 p.m. ET for a spot in the regional semifinals.
The Beavers, in the NCAA tournament field for the first time since 1996 -- when more than a few of their players were probably still in diapers -- are new to their situation as well. Head coach Scott Rueck has never coached a game in the Division I tournament -- he won the Division III national title with George Fox University in 2009. Their best player is a freshman. And the last time the Oregon State women won an NCAA tournament game, back in 1995, DVDs were being rolled out as the latest technology.
Yet Oregon State (24-10) looked completely relaxed, leading from start to finish, getting a game-high 26 points from freshman guard Sydney Wiese and locking down MTSU, which lost in the first round for the sixth straight time, on the defensive end.
"We just treated it like it's any other game," said Wiese, who was 6-of-13 from beyond the 3-point arc. "We just went out to have fun."
The Beavers arguably had more fun than South Carolina.
The Gamecocks (28-4) didn't win by 43 like Connecticut, or by 51 like Notre Dame, or even by 24 points like Tennessee, their fellow No. 1 seeds.
Instead, they did what they needed to do. They pulled down 52 rebounds, got to the free-throw line 42 times and established their inside game with 20 second-chance points.
"We are not going to win any style points," Staley said. "That is not who we are."South Carolina is tough and physical. It showed both of those cards in the proverbial deck to a Northridge team that was not the least bit intimidated. The Matadors were as close as 60-54 with 3:03 to go after going on an 8-0 run.
"They stayed in it the whole time," said Gamecocks guard Tiffany Mitchell, who finished with 24 points. "We'd get a double-digit lead and they would hit big shots. But we kept our composure."
South Carolina closed the game out by pulling down key rebounds and getting to the free-throw line, denying the Matadors an opportunity to hit more big shots in the final moments. Northridge's leading scorer, guard Ashlee Guay, was limited to six points on 2-of-9 shooting and left the game after hitting her head on the floor with less than five minutes to play. Guard Janae Sharp finished with a game-high 26 points.
Northridge coach Jason Flowers made a convincing case that his 18-15 team thought they could win. "We've got good kids," Flowers said. "These kids have gone through things, individually and as a group. They have consistently overcome adversity. It was a situation where we wanted to show people who we really are."
The concern for South Carolina might be that this game also showed who the Gamecocks really are, a vulnerable top seed that may not run through this NCAA field the same way a Connecticut or a Notre Dame likely will.
"We survived to play on," Staley said. "I'm glad to be sitting here preparing for another game. A lot of teams in the men's and women's tournaments can't say that right now."
Middle Tennessee star Ebony Rowe can't say it, either.
Rowe ended a stellar career with 17 points (on 7-of-23 shooting) and 11 rebounds. Her voice cracked with emotion as she talked about playing her final game for the Blue Raiders.
"Of course, I wanted the win, but it's been a great four years," Rowe said. "I played for the best coach in the country and these girls are my family. I'm really blessed. I couldn't have asked for anything more."
Rueck and his team, meanwhile, move on. And they are going to continue to try to keep things casual, even as the No. 1 seed bears down on Tuesday night.
"Games are games. I don't care if it's the NCAA tournament or the junior high championship," Rueck said. "It's a big game and you want to win, but we have tried to keep things as normal as possible. There's no use getting uptight about it."
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