Savannah State looks for better showing vs. South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Savannah State’s Ezinne Kalu was excited to see her team’s name in the NCAA Tournament for the first time and then some of her teammates had an “Oh no” moment when they saw their opponent.

The 16th-seeded Lady Tigers (21-10) play their first-ever tournament game Friday against No. 1 seed South Carolina (30-2) in the same building where the Gamecocks pounded them 111-49 on Dec. 14.

Eighth-seeded Syracuse (21-9) faces No. 9 seed Nebraska (21-10) in the other matchup.

The Lady Tigers perked up not long after the Greensboro Regional pairing was announced, putting that “Oh no” moment and embracing the opportunity to show they aren’t the club that lost by 62 points against South Carolina.

“You also had a handful of us who thought we have a second chance at this, we have a second chance to compete at a high level and compete with a great team,” Kalu said.

They have a tough challenge ahead of them. There’s only been one No. 16 upset of No. 1, back in 1998 when Harvard defeated Stanford 71-67.

Still, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said Savannah State is a vastly different team than in the previous meeting. The Lady Tigers come into this having won 11 straight games and 17 of their last 19.

“They’re champions,” Staley said. “When you’re playing real well, you’re confident. I’m really quite sure they’re not going to look at footage from the last time we played.”

South Carolina has won 32 straight at home, not having lost on its court since late in the 2013 season. That run is tied for the longest streak of success in school history.

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Some things to watch for in Columbia:

TOURNAMENT RETURN: The NCAA Tournament is back in Columbia for the first time since 2002. After that year, the campus could hold NCAA games of the organization’s ban on South Carolina and Mississippi for flying the Confederate flag. The NCAA changed hosting rules, allowing women’s basketball teams who earn spots on merit to host, putting the Gamecocks back in play.

HOME, SWEET, HOME? Dawn Staley slept in her bed last night, but had the players bunk down in a hotel to keep them as distraction free as possible when playing on campus. Staley said the group will go to a movie, have a team dinner, “then turn in their phones to get ready to play.”

NOT TALKING: Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman would not comment on Orange men’s coach Jim Boeheim’s plan to retire in three years. “We’re not going to talk about things going on at home,” he said. “I think everybody sees the Syracuse on our chest and the Syracuse means we’ve got a game tomorrow that we need to come out and win.”

HOLDING STRONG: Nebraska’s postseason seemed in jeopardy when top scorer Rachel Theriot hurt her ankle and missed the past 10 games. That’s when the Huskers’ four senior starters in Tear’a Laudermill, Hailie Sample, Emily Cady and Brandi Jeffery stepped up to lead the way toward their fourth straight NCAA Tournament trip. Coach Connie Yuri said her team is not near as strong without Theriot in the lineup, but the collective effort of her upperclassmen let them hang on to clinch at at-large berth.

CAROLINA TIES: Savannah State coach Cedric Baker played at Voorhees College about an hour’s drive from South Carolina. He also coached the women’s team at Benedict College in Columbia. He said South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s father, Ajit Randhawa, was Baker’s advisor at Voorhees. “This is my home away from home,” he said, smiling.

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