South Carolina coach Dawn Staley figured to have a team dripping in NCAA Tournament experience instead of a group still getting its feet wet.
The Gamecocks' stellar sophomores led by All-American Aliyah Boston overcame some early bumps in their first NCAA Tournament game Sunday to move into the second round where they'll face No. 8 seed Oregon State for a spot in the Sweet 16.
“We knew we had come in and bring our own energy,” South Carolina junior Victaria Saxton said.
Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, all starters the past two seasons, were part of Staley's top-rated recruiting class entering the 2019-20 season. The Gamecocks were among the country's best, closing the year with 10 weeks at No. 1 and carrying a 26-game win streak into what they expected would be a deep NCAA run.
COVID-19 ended those dreams and South Carolina went into its opener against No. 16 seed Mercer with junior Destanni Henderson the only player on the roster to start an NCAA Tournament game.
It didn't matter.
Boston led the way with 20 points and 18 rebounds. Cooke had 13 points, all in the second half.
Staley was pleased that her players shook off a slow start — the game was tied at 27-all in the second quarter — to win their ninth straight NCAA opener, 79-53.
“Don't flinch,” Staley reminded them, “This is just part of our journey.”
The next step in the journey is a matchup with an Oregon State team that has an unusual perspective than most teams in the region — the Beavers know what it's like to beat South Carolina.
Oregon State won 70-68 in Vancouver at a Thanksgiving weekend tournament two seasons ago. And the Beavers are playing well; they blew past ninth-seeded Florida State, 83-59, on Sunday to advance.
The Beavers have turned over their roster, too, since defeating South Carolina. Aleah Goodman, who had 24 points in the win over FSU, was a reserve two years ago.
Goodman said they'll approach South Carolina no differently than any other opponent.
“The importance of just playing our game, playing our basketball and just controlling the tempo and the pace is really important,” Goodman said.
It's now up to third-seeded UCLA to slow down Texas' Charli Collier when the Bruins play the sixth-seeded Longhorns to reach the Sweet 16 on Wednesday.
UCLA won its ninth straight NCAA first-round game with a 69-48 victory over No. 14 seed Wyoming on Monday night. Next for the Bruins are talented Texas and Collier, the 6-foot-5 powerhouse who's the likely No. 1 pick in the next WNBA draft.
Collier has some unfinished college business to attend to — getting the Longhorns back in the round of 16 for the third time in the past four tournaments.
Collier had 23 points and 15 boards, her 18th double-double this season, in beating Bradley 81-62 on Monday night.
Alabama's Jordan Lewis had one of the tournament's top performances in leading the seventh-seeded Crimson Tide to an 80-71 first-round victory over 10th-seeded North Carolina. Lewis had 32 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists as Alabama moved into the second round for the first time since 1999.
Lewis will likely need another big outing for the Crimson Tide to stay alive as they face No. 2 seed Maryland, which leads the country in offense at 91.3 points a game and defeated Mount St. Mary's 98-45 on Monday. The Terps have only made it into the Sweet 16 once in their previous four NCAA appearances.
Georgia Tech's first trip to the NCAA Tournament in seven years looked like it might be a short one, down 17 at the half to 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin. But the Yellow Jackets rallied for a 54-52 overtime victory, tied for the fourth largest comeback in tournament history.
Georgia Tech will face No. 4 seed West Virginia to move on. Yellow Jackets coach Nell Fortner is grateful her players hung in there and got to experience the feeling of NCAA success.
They're attempting to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012.
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