How No. 1 South Carolina looks to stay on guard as rigor of NCAA Tournament ramps up

South Carolina women’s basketball was a 49.5-point favorite against Norfolk State for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But the Spartans came to Columbia with no intention of rolling over to the defending champions.

USC shot just 40.7% from the field in the first half in its March Madness opener before ultimately correcting its errors.

“I think we won the game with our talent,” head coach Dawn Staley said.

The defense of Norfolk State contributed to South Carolina’s early struggles on Friday, as 10 of USC’s 12 turnovers came from steals. Still, the performance was surprising from a team with USC’s championship pedigree, as the Gamecocks were facing a Spartans team — with just three players taller than 6-foot — at home, even with the 72-40 win.

And the intensity that the Spartans’ brought may serve as an indication for what teams will bring to South Carolina for the rest of the tournament.

“I don’t think we take any team lightly, but in our head, maybe we were kind of looking forward a little bit too much,” senior forward Laeticia Amihere said about Friday’s game. “So just making sure we’re taking it minute by minute, we’re not looking too far ahead and we’re just making sure that we get the job done.”

Opponents that South Carolina could face down the road will get progressively more talented, and more will be on the line after each round.

The Greenville 1 region still has teams like Maryland, Notre Dame and UCLA remaining. The Gamecocks have already faced the Terrapins and Bruins, as well as Mississippi State — which has made its way to the second round as a No. 11 seed.

“Each game is gonna get harder and harder,” senior guard Zia Cooke said. “But at the same time, even the games that might not seem as hard are the ones that we really, really have to execute in. So just having a mindset of knowing that it doesn’t get easier. And the only way we can advance is by playing South Carolina’s best basketball.”

USC is in pursuit of its first repeat title in program history, which would also make it the first team since UConn to go back-to-back.

The Gamecocks have been consistent with their message to take the season game by game, which earned them the No. 1 overall seed and an undefeated record.

But those factors continually add to teams’ desire to beat them.

“Every game, we just have to level up,” senior guard Olivia Thompson said. “We just have to understand our weaknesses, understand that we’ve got to bring that intensity every single game, no matter who our opponent is.”

South Carolina achieved its 33-0 record by defeating teams with different styles of play outside of the SEC.

It also managed to find contributions from an assortment of different players in those games, like Thompson and Bree Hall’s 3-pointers against Stanford, Brea Beal’s defense against South Dakota State, Kierra Fletcher’s shot-making against UCLA and Kamilla Cardoso’s 11-point second quarter against UConn.

South Carolina’s gotten out to slow starts in the first half of road games, particularly against opponents higher up in the NET rankings. This will be more of a factor as the team gets to neutral-site games.

The Gamecocks will face a South Florida team on Sunday that spent time this season in The Associated Press Top 25 and overcame an 11-point second-half deficit to defeat Marquette in Colonial Life Arena.

“We just have to make sure we throw the first punch,” freshman forward Ashlyn Watkins said. “We can’t let them come back like Marquette did.”

USC had the opportunity to regroup and prepare for the Bulls after the last game. It hasn’t strung together two consecutive poor performances this season, and still has its All-American performers to lean on.

But regardless of seeding and rankings, South Carolina will have to play like the nation’s No. 1 team in each of its remaining games.

“It’s definitely just keeping it one game at a time, not overlooking anyone,” Fletcher said. “Stay in the moment, stay poised and just rely on the experience that we have on this team.”

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