By Josh Hyber | Photo by Artie Walker Jr.
For four years South Carolina coaches, players and fans were accustomed to playing on championship Sunday of the SEC Tournament. It did not matter if the Gamecocks were favorites or longshots to get there, the team always found a way.
But the four-year conference-tournament-winning streak came to an end in 2019 — South Carolina fell to Arkansas in the quarterfinal round — prompting the inevitable question: Would the Gamecocks hold onto a top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and host the opening round?
That answer — yes — was leaked around 2 p.m. Monday, five hours before it was scheduled to be announced on an ESPN Selection Show.
Because of what the NCAA called a “technical error,” it was revealed the Gamecocks had indeed earned a No. 4 seed and will play No. 13 Belmont on Friday at 1:45 p.m. at UNC Charlotte’s Halton Arena in a game televised on ESPN2.
“It was a little anticlimactic, with the bracket being revealed long before it should have been, but we’re extremely excited,” Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley told a crowd of about 400 at the team’s selection show watch party at The Zone at Williams-Brice Stadium.
If South Carolina wins, it will advance to play the winner of No. 5 seed Florida State (23-8) and No. 12 seed Bucknell (28-5), a game that will be played on Friday at 4 p.m.
For the Gamecocks, the NCAA Tournament is about proving the team is more like the SEC Champs of the past four seasons than the team that bowed out in the first round of the conference tournament this season.
“We turned the page. We’re getting ready and we’re [going] to bring a different level,” Gamecock junior point guard Ty Harris said. “It’s going to be a different basketball team than before and I’m excited to see what we have.”
“On Friday I know we won’t be the same team that took the floor two Fridays ago,” Staley said. “… We’ve been practicing. We’ve been getting after it. I think the players have been challenged in a way that they needed to be challenged to get us back to playing our best basketball.
“Hopefully Friday we’ll be a different team and a better team.”
The coach was in her office around 2 p.m. when she received several text messages asking her about the leaked bracket. She was curious, so she checked with several sources who might have known if it was real or not.
“You never know. You never know,” Staley said. “We had to just wait and see if our body of work gave us an opportunity to host, and it did.”
“I was actually really looking forward to watching it and seeing the reveal,” Harris said. “I guess you can say it was [anticlimactic].”
With the extra five hours, Staley and her staff got to work.
“I immediately called [Director of Video Services] Hudson [Jacobs] to get as much film on Belmont, Bucknell and Florida State,” Staley said, letting reporters know that Belmont compares style-wise to Drake and Missouri.
Since the Gamecocks fell to Arkansas on March 8, the team has taken some time off to rest, but also had several intense practices.
“Just competing and picking up our pressure on the ball defensively,” Harris said. “Maybe that’ll make us have better offense.”
Said senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, “I’m very excited [to be playing] close to here.”
Meanwhile, despite the bracket leak, the team was able to celebrate its accomplishment of making the tournament.
At 6:38 p.m. on Monday, the team gathered in chairs in front of a large projection screen inside The Zone and reacted as if it has just found out its seed.
“On the count of three, act surprised, overly surprised,” Gamecock alum Khadijah Sessions (2012-16), the event’s emcee, told the crowd.
“One, two, three.”
The players screamed. Harris bolted through a set of doors and onto a balcony overlooking Bluff Road and Gamecock Park.
“We’re going to the dance!” she shouted.