WBB: Gamecocks going dancing

The South Carolina women's basketball teamed earned the fifth seed in the Fresno Regional and will face Eastern Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday afternoon in West Lafayette, Indiana. Fans gathered with the team Monday night to watch the Selection Show and Staley spoke after their name was called.

It's been a long time coming.

For the first time since the 2002-03 season the South Carolina women's basketball team is in the field of 64 in the NCAA Tournament.

"We're so excited to be in the number of those playing in the NCAA Tournament," Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. "The journey has been extremely long for us; long and hard. I want to thank our fans for hanging in there with us. It didn't look real pretty four years ago, it looked a little better in the second year, looked a lot better the third year, and then this year we put ourselves in a position to have our South Carolina Gamecock team flash across the screen on national television."

A crowd of over 500 fans piled into the Frank McGuire room inside the Colonial Life Arena Monday night to watch the selection show with the team and coaches. It did not take long for South Carolina's name to be called, earning the fifth seed in the Fresno Regional. They will face the twelfth seeded Eastern Michigan Eagles in West Lafayette, Indiana.

"Our marketing department put a tremendous event together to bring all of you guys together so we can all be in the same room because you all are definitely the people that have been committed to our program from day one," Staley said.

When Staley was hired on May 10, 2008, many fans expressed their concern over Staley's contract. Staley's base salary was $250,000 and a total package that reached $650,000 annually. The main outcry was that she was making more than baseball coach Ray Tanner.

"I want to thank our administrators, Eric Hyman, for giving us the vision and belief; we believe in his vision," Staley said. "He wants all of his teams to compete for National Championships and we certainly want to do our part as the South Carolina women's basketball team."

It took longer than Staley expected, but four years later she has her team back in the NCAA Tournament, her seventh appearance in her coaching career. She also reached the NCAA Tournament all four years as a player at Virginia, three Final Four appearances, and the MOP of the 1991 Final Four.

"It's been pretty exciting, it really has," Staley said. "I think for me as a coach I envision our program to be a part of NCAA Tournaments. I didn't think it would take four years but it was well worth the wait. We've done it the right way, putting a product on the floor that sometimes didn't always look as polished as it does today, but certainly paved the way."

South Carolina will be making its ninth appearance in the NCAA Tournament, including four in a row from 1988-1991. It has an 8-8 overall record, including an Elite Eight appearance in the 2001-02 season. In that season they were also seeded fifth and lost to Penn State on their home court in the second round. A win over the Eagles would likely match the Gamecocks up with Purdue in the second round on their home court. That will not be on the mind of the Gamecock coaches in the next 48 hours. It's all about Eastern Michigan.

The Eagles are about as an unfamiliar opponent as any. EMU won the Mid-American Conference and finished with a 23-8 record. The two teams have never met and do not even share a common opponent this season. That will change.

"We don't know much about the Eastern Michigan basketball team, but within the next 24 hours we're going to get to know them from top to bottom" Staley said. "We're going to know what type of cereal they eat in the morning."

The next two days are going to be long days for the staff as they try to assemble a gameplan for a team they know nothing about.

"Tonight we're just going to get as much film on Eastern Michigan to figure out what they like to do and what they don't like," Staley said. "Hopefully we can put a premature gameplan together within the next 24 hours and within 48 hours we should have an entire gameplan."

While there is still work left to be done for the team, tonight was a celebration of a long journey that began four years ago. Players came and players went, but for those who stuck around, Monday night was about them.

"It wasn't pretty. I knew it wasn't going to be pretty," Staley said. "We had some players that left the program early and some players that stayed. For those that have been here they understand the process to stick with it. If you stick with it and you're disciplined about yourself and what this program is about you're going to be successful, individually and as a program."

For the 13 players, particularly the five seniors who have seen it all, they handprints are left on the program. Wherever the program goes from here, they were the ones that turned things around; turned a team that struggled to win 10 games four years ago to a team that won 23 this season and will be dancing Saturday inside Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana.

"I think we all had our hand and work involved and put us in a position to do what we do best," Staley said. "I think what I bring to the table with this team is that I coach. What our players bring is if they are very disciplined and bring a mindset of wanting to win. If you want to win you will figure out a way to stay focused and balance academics. You'll figure out a way to be successful and that's what our team has done."

They aren't done yet.

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