Gamecocks get first No. 1 seed

South Carolina likely thought a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament had gotten away after losses to Tennessee to end the regular season and Kentucky to exit the SEC tournament in the semifinals.

Yet when the NCAA bracket came out, the Gamecocks were the top seed in the Stanford Regional. Jumping up and down and dancing commenced when the players saw that magic "1" next to their school's name.

"We were hoping for the 1-seed. We're just thankful to get it," South Carolina guard Tiffany Mitchell said. And as for opening play on the West Coast, she added, "We've handled playing on the road pretty well."

If South Carolina is to make a run at the program's first Women's Final Four, the Gamecocks will do it far from home. Their first- and second-round games are in Seattle. If they win both of those, they'll play the regional in California. In both cases, they'll be three time zones away from Columbia, S.C. But they're not going to complain with the path the NCAA has laid out for them.

"We are going to enjoy this tremendous moment for our program," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said of the best seed the Gamecocks have ever had.

That was for Monday night, of course. Then the work begins in earnest as the Gamecocks prepare to face Cal State Northridge. South Carolina was one of eight SEC teams in the NCAA field, and joins Tennessee as a No. 1 seed. That is impressive company; the Lady Vols have been to the Final Four a record 18 times.

"What we're trying to do here at South Carolina -- which is win national championships -- I think it does start with getting No. 1 seeds," Staley said. "Putting yourself in the same breath as the Notre Dames, UConns, Tennessees. I think it's a breath of fresh air to have someone new.

"Our kids are going to be tremendously excited to play in the NCAA tournament and be a No. 1 seed. I think sometimes in that position, you play not to lose. We'll talk a lot about playing to win."

Which might sound simplistic, but it's not. Staley knows what she's talking about when it comes to NCAA tournament mentality. As a player, she led Virginia to three appearances in the Women's Final Four in 1990-92, and that included a huge victory over then-defending NCAA champion Tennessee in the 1990 regional final.

What Staley did back then on the court for the Cavaliers is what she is trying to get her Gamecocks to do now: really establish themselves as national-championship contenders. To do that takes more than talent; it also requires consistency.

In 2002, South Carolina got as far as the regional final as a No. 3 seed, but there it lost to top-seeded Duke. Staley was in her first coaching job at that time, leading Temple in her hometown of Philadelphia.

This is her sixth season at South Carolina. And if the Gamecocks are to go a step further than they've ever been, it will take several young players carrying big loads. Such as the sophomore Mitchell, who was the SEC Player of the Year, and post player Alaina Coates, who was the league's freshman of the year.

Mitchell has become a more efficient player in her second season at South Carolina. And with Coates, Elem Ibiam and Aleighsa Welch, the Gamecocks have depth and strength in the post.

"We've worked really hard for this. Now we've just got to handle business," Welch said. "To see this program come from where it came from ... I can't really put it into words. I'm beyond happy right now."