The South Carolina seniors had some time to take mental snapshots of their arena and soak in the feelings of affection that poured down on them from the crowd as their second-round NCAA tournament game concluded Sunday. Such are the benefits of a 29-point victory.
"You think of the memories you've had in this gym with these fans," South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch said after beating Syracuse in her final game at Colonial Life Arena. "There's no place like home. The sweet part is knowing my journey isn't over."
Meanwhile on Monday, the North Carolina seniors couldn't bask in the happiness of winning their last game on their home court until the final buzzer sounded. Freshman Jamie Cherry's winning basket with 1 second left brought all in Carmichael Arena to their feet, and kept alive the Tar Heels' season.
"I'm sure they'll be fired up for us. They've got size, they've got shooters. They're just a really, really good team." UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell, on Sweet 16 foe South Carolina
"Everybody dreams of hitting a shot like that," Cherry said after an 86-84 victory over Ohio State. "I just wanted to move on to the Sweet 16, especially for our seniors. I love them, and I didn't want it to end right here for them."
However, the end must come for one of these teams Friday (ESPN/WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET), as No. 1 seed South Carolina meets No. 4 North Carolina in the semifinals of the Greensboro Regional. It's a rematch of last year's Sweet 16 meeting, won by the Tar Heels, but that game was contested way out in California, on Stanford's home court.
This year's location is perfect for a showdown between the two Carolinas. Greensboro, North Carolina, is where the ACC's headquarters are located, and Greensboro Coliseum is an hour's drive from Carmichael in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It's roughly a three-hour drive from Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina.
The matchup on court in some ways will be like any other that these two teams play against any opponent. That's because by this point, both teams' identities are firmly established. Dawn Staley's South Carolina squad has abundant depth at every position and height inside, and often overwhelms foes with both. Sylvia Hatchell's North Carolina team is heavily guard-oriented with one very powerful post player, and the Tar Heels want to beat teams by winning the possessions battle.
"I'm sure they'll be fired up for us," Hatchell said. "They've got size, they've got shooters. They're just a really, really good team. It seems like about half their team came through camp here. We recruited some of those kids, and I know a lot of them really well.
"Dawn has done a fabulous job down there in rebuilding that program. They're leading the nation in attendance, and they'll have a lot of people in Greensboro. It would be really terrible if they have more people there than the Tar Heels did. So I need to do a shoutout to get all the Carolina folks in the arena for us."
Of course, that points out a perpetual tug-of-war over the term "Carolina," which both schools use in reference to themselves.
North vs. South
There are factors of geography and history that add intrigue to this matchup, even if those things are more big-picture oriented and not really part of a game-day scouting report.
As Hatchell alluded to, many of these players wearing (North) Carolina blue and (South) Carolina garnet and black have known each other a long time. There are two sets of high school teammates now on different sides. The Gamecocks' Welch and the Tar Heels' N'Dea Bryant are both from Goose Creek High in South Carolina. And the Gamecocks' Asia Dozier and the Tar Heels' Xylina McDaniel (who is out with an injury) played for Spring Valley High in Columbia.
The Carolinas region always has had quite a bit of girls' basketball talent, and a lot of it over the years has tended to stay relatively close to home. Look back at all three of the Tar Heels' Final Four teams (1994, 2006, 2007), and you'll see key players from both Carolinas.
Hatchell, who is from Gastonia, a mill town outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, has been coach of the Tar Heels since 1986. She always has recruited her region very well, and the Tar Heels are perennially a competitive program. Under Hatchell, they've won or shared four regular-season ACC titles and won the league tournament nine times. Highlighted by their 1994 national championship, the Tar Heels have made 26 NCAA tournament appearances in the event's 34-year history, with 22 of those coming during Hatchell's tenure.
That includes last year, when the Tar Heels were officially still being coached by Hatchell, although she couldn't be on the sidelines as she battled leukemia. Andrew Calder, who has been Hatchell's assistant since she took over the program, was in charge in her absence, consulting with her almost daily and constantly crediting her. It was an admirable display of loyalty and responsibility that Calder handled extremely well while taking the Tar Heels all the way to the Elite Eight.
They did that by upsetting the Gamecocks in the regional semifinals, a result that still stings South Carolina.
The Gamecocks' program has not had the same sustained success as the Tar Heels, who hold an 11-7 edge in a series that began in 1976. But South Carolina has changed substantially under Staley, who took over in 2008. Prior to Staley, South Carolina had made the NCAA field eight times, and been as far as the Elite Eight once, in 2002. Staley's Gamecocks have made four NCAA tournament appearances, with this being their third trip to the Sweet 16. South Carolina has won or tied for the SEC regular-season title the past two years, and won the program's first league tournament earlier this month.
Both coaches have been inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame; Hatchell as a coach (career record: 961-339 at UNC and Francis Marion), and Staley as a player. Staley also appears well on the way to a Hall of Fame coaching career, too, with a record of 325-153 in 15 seasons combined at Temple and South Carolina.
A native of Philadelphia, Staley was the game-changing recruit for Virginia when she arrived in Charlottesville in 1988. Playing for the Cavaliers, Staley never lost to the Tar Heels, going 10-0 against them. As a coach at South Carolina, though, Staley is 1-4 versus North Carolina, including two losses last season.
In a playing career that included eight WNBA seasons and three Olympic gold medals, the one big heartbreak for Staley was not winning a national title at Virginia. She lives in the present, though, and not in the past. And right now, the present and future of the Gamecocks look very bright.
Pick your Carolina side
Since they don't play in the same conference -- South Carolina was a founding member of the ACC in 1953 before leaving in 1971, in part because of friction with the four North Carolina schools in the league -- the Tar Heels and Gamecocks don't have the kind of white-hot rivalry that generally is reserved for league foes.
North Carolina's archrival in everything remains, forever and ever, Duke. South Carolina, an independent for several years before joining the Metro Conference in 1983 and then the SEC in 1991, has various chief rivals in different sports. It's still Clemson in football; in women's basketball, it has become longtime SEC giant Tennessee.
But with both North Carolina and South Carolina now being women's hoops powers recruiting some of the same talent every year, the programs are competing against each other even when they're not meeting on the court.
That's a good thing for women's basketball, which is boosted by growth around the country. Followers of the sport are always alert to places where the fan base has blossomed and appears to be sustainable. Columbia is such a place.
The capital city of the Palmetto State, it's also the epicenter of Gamecock Nation. Without trying to rile up fans of the 11 other Division I schools in South Carolina, including Clemson of the ACC, it's reasonable to say emotional pride about Gamecocks athletic success is felt very deeply all over the state.
The state of North Carolina -- home to 18 Division I schools (four in the ACC) and NFL, NBA and NHL franchises -- is a different sports environment. Tar Heel women's basketball has a ton to compete against for attention even just in the Triangle, including this week when the men's programs from North Carolina, Duke and NC State all play in the Sweet 16, as do the Duke women.
There's not a lot the Tar Heels women can do about their overshadowed status in a Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area that has been spoiled rotten for decades with college basketball greatness. But it has never really stopped North Carolina from getting talent and winning a lot.
Still, it has been fun to see fans go crazy about the Gamecocks women, for whom victories have brought a bigger spotlight in Columbia and statewide. South Carolina averaged 12,540 fans in 14 home games during the regular season to lead the nation. The Gamecocks drew more than 10,000 for both their NCAA tournament games.
Staley has excelled at connecting with the community and making every Gamecocks supporter feel like a vital part of her team. Having eight South Carolina natives on the roster this season helps, too. Those players have a particularly strong attachment with the fans.
"Playing here at home has been one of the most amazing feelings ever," said Gamecocks junior guard Khadijah Sessions, who is from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. "The crowd has our back, and we feed off their support. They're sending us off with a great feeling to Greensboro."
That is the place where North Carolina versus South Carolina will be settled this season in women's basketball. But it's an ongoing competition worth watching for the foreseeable future.