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Mar 18, 2024 10:53 pm

Undefeated South Carolina No. 1 in Albany region full of fresh faces

Cardoso

For the fourth straight season, South Carolina is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And once again, Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks are the favorites to win the Big Dance.

South Carolina (32-0) just completed their second consecutive undefeated regular season and captured the program’s eighth Southeastern Conference Tournament title. The Gamecocks will begin their pursuit of a third national championship under the direction of Staley on Friday at home in Columbia, S.C. The Gamecocks will take on the winner of a First Four matchup between a pair of 16-seeds, Sacred Heart (22-9) and Presbyterian (17-14).

The Gamecocks will have to play that game without leading scorer and rebounder Kamilla Cardoso, who must serve a one-game suspension after she was ejected from the SEC championship game for what the referees deemed was fighting during a late-game skirmish with LSU. Cardoso averages 14 points and 9.5 rebounds per game and sixth nationally in defensive rating with a 71.8 mark.

“We all know that we’re a better basketball team when Kamilla Cardoso is in the lineup,” Staley said Sunday. “We’ll make do hopefully until she’s able to come back.”

Staley, who this week was voted Coach of the Year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association for the third straight year, has won comfortably without Cardoso this season though. The Gamecocks beat Missouri and UConn by an average margin of 28 points while the 6-foot-7 center was playing with the Brazilian national team in February. Cardoso also missed a 48-point win over Kentucky, when she was sidelined for rest.

In the win over UConn, it was Te-Hina Paopao who stepped up and scored 21 points. The transfer from Oregon has flourished under Staley, shooting a career-best 47.1 percent from 3-point land this season, which is 11th best in the country. Freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley has played well lately too, averaging 15 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game over her last six outings. Fulwiley was named SEC Tournament MVP after scoring 24 points in 16 minutes in the title game.

Fulwiley isn’t the only stellar freshman in the Albany 1 region. No. 2 Notre Dame (26-6) has been powered this season by Hannah Hidalgo, who has piled up stats and accolades.

After being voted Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Hidalgo poured in 58 points, 18 rebounds and 18 assists in three days in Greensboro, N.C. to help Notre Dame win its first ACC Tournament title since 2019. Hidalgo leads the nation in steals with 4.6 per game.

“Hannah is a special player,” Irish teammate Sonia Citron said. “We knew before she even played a game. Just when she came in in the summer, she just has a different mentality, so in workouts, in practices, we kind of just knew she was going to be special. She’s just different.”

While the Irish have three players averaging double figures in scoring – Citron and Maddy Westbeld join Hidalgo’s 23.3 points per game in that group – they lack depth. Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey said Sunday that starting forward Kylee Watson would miss the NCAA Tournament with a torn ACL she suffered in the ACC Tournament. Notre Dame has played all of this season without All-American guard Olivia Miles, who had knee surgery last offseason.

Should South Carolina and Notre Dame meet in the Elite Eight, it will be a rematch of the season-opener for both teams, a 29-point win for the Gamecocks on a neutral court in Paris, France.

While South Carolina is undefeated, the nation’s second-longest win streak belongs to the Fairfield Stags, who are seeded 13th in this region. The Stags (31-1) – guided by second-year coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis – have won 29 games in a row and are ranked 25th in the latest AP Top 25 Poll. Fairfield, which begins its tournament at No. 4 Indiana, is also led by a standout freshman in forward Meghan Andersen, who averages 15.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.

“We’re excited to get ready and prepare for the week ahead and figure out the plan. It’s a team and a league I’m familiar with so I’m excited to get back to Big Ten country,” said Thibault-DuDonis, who was an assistant at Minnesota before coaching Fairfield.

The Stags will aim to pull off an upset over the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Ind. The last MAAC team to win an NCAA Tournament game was Quinnipiac in 2018.

–On the other side of Indiana’s host site is No. 5 Oklahoma (22-9) against No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast (27-4). While the Sooners won the Big 12 regular season title, FGCU – coached Karl Smesko in his 21st season – has made a habit of first-round upsets. Since 2018, the Eagles have advanced to the second round in three of their last five tournament appearances.

–In the second round, South Carolina will likely face the winner of No. 8 North Carolina (19-12) vs. No. 9 Michigan State (22-8).

A meeting with the Tar Heels would be a rematch of a Nov. 30 game in Chapel Hill, which the Gamecocks won by seven points despite trailing by as much as 11 points in the second quarter. UNC and South Carolina also faced off in the 2022 Sweet 16 in Greensboro, N.C.

–This is the first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance for Presbyterian. Tilda Sjokvist, a sophomore from Sweden, leads the Blue Hose with 13 points and 3.5 assists per game.

–Mitchell Northam, Field Level Media

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