COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina guard Asia Dozier recalls attending Gamecock women's games when she was in junior high school, and not having any problem getting a good seat. Dozier, a Columbia native whose father and uncle are twins who played basketball at South Carolina in the 1980s, realized she had a chance to help improve the atmosphere at Colonial Life Arena.
"I probably came to my first women's game here in seventh grade," Dozier said. "At halftime, they used to announce to everybody who was in the upper deck to come down and fill in the empty seats close to the court. Now to see the fans rush in when the doors open, it's a complete turnaround. It's an amazing feeling to know we played a role in changing the fan support here."
The Gamecocks have done that by playing great basketball, and Sunday's 97-68 victory over Syracuse in the NCAA tournament second round was a celebration of how much this team has become beloved by the community. And it was also about as complete a game as South Carolina has played all season.
The top-seeded Gamecocks had six players score in double figures and shot 55.2 percent (32 of 58) from the field. They hit from inside and outside, had 20 assists to 12 turnovers, and outrebounded Syracuse 40-35.
And as the crowd of 10,485 roared at game's end to send the Gamecocks happily toward their Sweet 16 appointment Friday in the Greensboro Regional -- about a three-hour drive from here -- it was worth taking time to both reflect and look forward.
This will be third appearance in the Sweet 16 for South Carolina's seniors, including starters Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam. But it's the first regional semifinal that is actually in the Eastern time zone, let alone driving distance for Gamecock fans. South Carolina lost in the Sweet 16 to Stanford in 2012 in Fresno, California, and to North Carolina last year at Stanford, California.
This time at Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina, the Gamecocks will have an experienced team, support from their fans, and a deep roster that so far has been playing very cohesively in the postseason.
Dozier is a great example of the kind of depth South Carolina has. The 6-foot junior guard-forward came into Sunday's game averaging 3.9 points per game. She's not someone whom the Gamecocks typically need to rely on to hit big shots. But she can hit them, as she showed Sunday. Dozier scored 12 points by making 4-of-5 3-pointers.
Three of Dozier's treys came in the first half, after which South Carolina led 53-25 and pretty much made the statement that it was absolutely not going to be stopped on this night.
"We knew if they started making 3's, we'd have a problem," Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. "And we had a problem."
Syracuse, the No. 8 seed, figured that packing in the zone would be the best chance to upset the Gamecocks. At a tournament in the Bahamas in late November, the Orange had almost pulled it off, forcing the Gamecocks to rally for a 67-63 victory.
That was the fifth game of South Carolina's season, and Dozier wasn't in the starting lineup then as coach Dawn Staley was experimenting with the many different combinations she could put on the court.
Dozier had started all but two games her sophomore season, so she might have been rattled by Staley's moves at the beginning of this season. But she wasn't, because she understood why it was happening. Dozier was back in the starting five on Dec. 4 against Charlotte and has stayed there.
"Asia is somebody who does the dirty work, who will take a charge whenever we need her to," Welch said. "She can set the tone for games by doing that. We told her before this game, 'We need you to hit shots.' She did, and then we were able to get 42 points in the paint.
"She's somebody in the big moments who can step up for us, and it may not be in scoring. It may be getting a rebound or making a stop or making the right pass into the post."
With Dozier's family ties to South Carolina and the success the program began to have under Staley, she couldn't pass up staying home for college. Her brother, Perry Jr., will join her at South Carolina next season, as he's a prized recruit for men's basketball coach Frank Martin's Gamecocks.
"As I built a relationship with Coach Staley and the rest of the staff, it hit me that there was nobody else in the country I'd rather play for," Dozier said. "Had she been at any other university ..."
At that point, fellow junior Tiffany Mitchell walked by Dozier and joked, "She came here because of me."
Actually, Dozier said, that was part of it, too, as they became friends during the recruiting process.
"She had committed already," Dozier said of Mitchell, who is from Charlotte, North Carolina, "and that definitely impacted my decision, too."
The tight-knit nature of this team despite the fact that so many talented players are competing for court time is the combination that all coaches want. But it's not that easy to get.
"It was definitely something we talked about coming into the season," Dozier said. "Just the need to have an unselfish attitude, knowing that the minutes were going to be shared by a lot of people. I think we took it as a good thing, knowing that the minutes you earn, you can really exert yourself. Because you know you have reinforcements."
That's what many of the Gamecocks' opponents have had to deal with: getting overwhelmed. South Carolina has won its five postseason games thus far, including three in the SEC tournament, by an average of 24 points.
"There is a lot of drive and determination to be as sharp as we can be," Dozier said. "We want to be ready for anything. Syracuse tried to throw different looks at us; they even played us a little man-to-man in the second half. But we're a hard team to guard."