Alaina Coates' injury a blow to top-seeded South Carolina

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One of the saddest things in college sports is when seniors get hurt and can't play in their last competition for their schools. That has happened to South Carolina center Alaina Coates.

The Gamecocks announced Tuesday that Coates has been ruled out from competing in the NCAA tournament because of an ankle injury.

Top-seeded South Carolina hosts UNC Asheville in the first round on Friday (ESPN2, 5 p.m. ET) at home in Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks no doubt will miss Coates, a 6-foot-4 center who averaged 12.9 points and 10.7 rebounds this season, shooting 67 percent from the field.

However, they have had some time to adjust to her absence. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, a 6-2 freshman forward, has seen her minutes increase, and she scored in double figures in the Gamecocks' win at Texas A&M on Feb. 23 and their SEC tournament victory over Kentucky on March 4.

It also means the Gamecocks likely will play more of a four-out/one-in lineup with SEC player of the year A'ja Wilson, their 6-5 junior forward, anchoring the paint. South Carolina -- the No. 1 seed in the Stockton Regional -- got a big boost in guard play from 6-2 junior Kaela Davis at the SEC tournament; her size also can help the Gamecocks inside.

But Coates' loss is a blow; she has been a huge contributor to South Carolina's ascent in the SEC and nationally. Coates played a big role as a sophomore in getting the Gamecocks to the program's first Final Four; she had 12 points and nine rebounds in their national semifinal loss to Notre Dame.

South Carolina now will have to try to make another run at the Final Four without Coates on the floor.

Tuesday's announcement suggests Coates' injury is worse than apparently was suspected, or at least was indicated publicly. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said after the Gamecocks' SEC tournament final victory on March 5 that Coates was expected to be able to play in the NCAA tournament.

Some might question exactly when South Carolina knew Coates' status. Were the Gamecocks aware before they were announced Monday as a No. 1 seed in the Stockton Regional? (Of course, it wouldn't be the first time a school kept some injury information to itself just before the selection show.) Or did they just find out definitively on Tuesday?

Coates initially was injured Feb. 19 at Missouri, and appeared in just two of South Carolina's subsequent five games. She played significant minutes in only one: her senior day game Feb. 26, when she was in for 27 minutes of a 95-87 victory over Kentucky. She had 13 points and nine rebounds in that game, but left in the fourth quarter after hurting the ankle again.

Then Coates appeared briefly in South Carolina's SEC semifinal victory over Kentucky on March 4. She played just four minutes total, and left in the third quarter after making a move in the lane in which she seemed to twist the ankle and went to the floor in pain.

There will be second-guessing, of course, about whether the Gamecocks should have shut down Coates over the last few weeks of the regular season and the conference tournament.

However, Coates herself said after the SEC tournament final that she had wanted to try to play, and that she thought she would be ready for the NCAA tournament.

Coates, one of the Gamecocks' local products from Irmo, South Carolina, just outside of Columbia, finishes her college career with 1,603 points, 1,230 rebounds and 210 blocks shots. She was the SEC freshman of the year in 2014, and a first-team All-SEC selection as a junior and senior.

We will wait to see how this injury impacts Coates' status in the upcoming WNBA draft. A big presence inside, Coates has been expected to be picked fairly early in the first round.