South Carolina’s star quintet ready for one last NCAA run
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s “Freshies” are ready for one last dance.
The Gamecocks’ incomparable quintet of players — led by All-American Aliyah Boston and leading scorer Zia Cooke — arrived to enormous promise in 2019-20 and have more than lived up to those expectations with three regular-season Southeastern Conference titles, three league tournament crowns, two Final Fours and last year’s national championship.
“I think we’ve build such a great bond, ‘The Freshies’ group,” Boston said Thursday. “To be on the last go-round with them, it’s just, like, super fun.”
Undefeated South Carolina (32-0) will start defending its NCAA crown Friday against No. 16 seed Norfolk State (26-6). Eighth-seeded South Florida (26-6) plays No. 9 seed Marquette (21-10) to open the day in Columbia.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley lured four of the country’s top 11 players in 2019, even coming off a down year — for her, anyway — finishing second in the SEC and getting knocked out in the Sweet 16.
Boston, the 6-foot-5 force who’s the reigning AP player of the year, was third overall in that incoming 2019 class, right in front of her future teammate Cooke. Forward Laeticia Amihere was 10th overall and Brea Beal, the Gamecocks’ defensive stopper, was 11th.
Olivia Thompson, from nearby Lexington, is the fifth “Freshie.”
Together, they’ve piled up team and individual accomplishments, a haul that could’ve been even greater had their freshman season not ended without an NCAA Tournament due to COVID-19. That season, the Gamecocks were on a 26-game win streak after sweeping the SEC regular-season and tournament titles.
Perhaps just as important, Beal said, the crew stayed throughout to achieve what they have.
“You don’t really have situations like this where a group comes in from a class and they all stick together to the end,” said Beal, the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year alongside Boston.
There were valleys along with the peaks, Beal said, but the way the quintet encouraged one another and held each other up was essential to the bond they built.
“It was just amazing,” Beal said. “Everybody can see that.”
South Florida is back in the NCAA Tournament — at the same first-round site as a year ago.
The Bulls were seeded ninth in the 2022 event and fell to eighth-seeded Miami at Colonial Life Arena, South Carolina’s home arena. This time, South Florida is seeded eighth and opens against No. 9 seed Marquette.
“I was like, here we go again,” South Florida leading scorer Elena Tsineke said.
The hope this time is to advance, even though that would mean a matchup against South Carolina on Sunday.
“My takeaway from last year was we didn’t come ready the way we should have, so this year is just kind of different,” said Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu, a fifth-year senior. “We’re kind of approaching it in a different way.”
South Carolina point guard Kierra Fletcher missed her team’s SEC Tournament title win because of an injured left ankle. She’s progressed nicely since then and expects to play Friday.
“I’m feeling good,” Fletcher said.
The Georgia Tech grad transfer started 29 of the Gamecocks 32 games this season and brought a steadiness to the team in the absence of last year’s starter Destanni Henderson.
Marquette coach Megan Duffy said it’s been a giddy time on campus for Golden Eagles fans with both the men’s and women’s basketball teams in the NCAA Tournament at the same time.
It’s just the seventh time that’s happened.
The men are seeded second in the East Region and will start play Friday against Vermont a short time after Duffy’s team should wrap its game against South Florida.
“I think the energy on campus at Marquette right now is the best and the highest since I’ve been around,” said Duffy, in her fourth season.
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25