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March 30, 2014

NCAA Sweet Sixteen preview

South Carolina resumes its NCAA Tournament run Sunday night against North Carolina.

Time: 7 p.m. ET approximately (The game begins 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Stanford-Penn State game)
Site: Maples Pavilion, Stanford, CA
TV: ESPN2

What to watch for:
As if there weren't enough on the line - a trip to the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history - there is something a little more personal at stake between South Carolina and North Carolina. It was the Tar Heels, after all, who dealt the Gamecocks their only non-conference loss this season. Three years ago, it was the Gamecocks who upset the Tar Heels, a win that announced South Carolina's arrival as a program.

North Carolina defeated South Carolina 74-66 on Dec. 18 in Myrtle Beach. South Carolina got off to a slow start, something they struggled with earlier in the season, and trailed by 12 at halftime. The Gamecocks battled back in the second half, but lost point guard Khadijah Sessions to an injury and the comeback fell short. Aleighsa Welch scored a career-high 23 points in the game, but got no help from Alaina Coates, who was scoreless in nine minutes of play.

South Carolina is counting on the return of Sessions plus the improvement by Coates to make the difference in the rematch. Sessions played outstanding defense in the second round win over Oregon State, holding leading scorer Sydney Wiese scoreless until the final 90 seconds of the game. North Carolina has a freshman sensation of its own in Diamond DeShields, who averages 17.9 points per game and can be nearly unstoppable at times, such as when she scored 38 points in a win at NC State.

For Coates, the game against North Carolina was the low point of a three game stretch that saw her post her season lows in minutes played, points, and rebounds (in fact, her three lowest totals in each category came during that stretch). A meeting with Dawn Staley regarding practice habits shook Coates out of the slump, and propelled her to her brilliant debut season.

"Mentally I wasn't ready for the game," Coates said. "We prepared but I wasn't necessarily there with my team and I wasn't able to contribute. Over the course of time I've been able to develop and this time I should be able to help my team in every way possible."


Notes:
* North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell will not coach the game as she continues to recover from her battle with leukemia. Associate head coach Andrew Calder, who has been with the Tar Heels for 30 seasons, will be the acting head coach as he has been all season. Hatchell has said that, should the Tar Heels advance, she could return for the Final Four.

* The Tar Heels have three players from South Carolina, two of whom are very familiar to the Gamecocks. N'Dea Bryant played at Goose Creek with Welch, and Xylina McDaniel was a teammate of Asia Dozier at Spring Valley. McDaniel in particular was heavily recruited by the Gamecocks, but decided she wanted to leave home for college. The Tar Heels also have Pageland native Latifah Coleman on the roster.

* South Carolina and North Carolina are still battling for one more recruit. Heathwood Hall star A'ja Wilson, the nation's top recruit, has said that she will announce her decision on April 16, the first day of the signing period. In addition to the two Carolinas, Wilson is also considering Tennessee and Connecticut. Publicly, Wilson has said she does not have a favorite among the four, although UConn is believed to a long shot.

* Free throw shooting has been a good barometer for South Carolina, especially in the tournament. In the opening round against Cal State Northridge and first half against Oregon State, as the Gamecocks struggled to put away opponents, they shot 63.7 percent from the line. But they made 25 of their final 26 free throws against the Beavers to close out the win.

* This is the fourth Sweet Sixteen appearance for South Carolina and second in three years.

* The Gamecocks only appearance in the Elite Eight came in 2002. As a three-seed, they defeated Liberty and Cincinnati at the Carolina Coliseum, and then beat Drake in Raleigh before falling to top seed Duke.

Quick Hits:
A win would give USC 30 for the season, tying the 1979-80 team for most in program history... Tiffany Mitchell has made 23 of 28 free throws in the tournament, bringing her season total to 157 free throws made, tying the school record... USC and UNC have never met in the postseason... UNC leads the all-time series 10-7.


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