In the South Carolina women’s basketball locker room after Friday’s stunning upset loss to Arkansas, the emotion was raw, the atmosphere “depressed,” as one Gamecock bluntly put it.
After four consecutive SEC tournament championships, a conference record, the Gamecocks had their tourney cut abruptly short by a hot-shooting, upstart Razorbacks squad that became the first 10-seed to advance to the tournament’s semifinals since 1993.
Dawn Staley’s message to the team after the defeat was simple.
“This loss doesn’t really define us. Gladly, this isn’t the end of our season. We got ourselves to the position to where we still have the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, and we gotta get ready for that and use this as motivation,” Staley told the team, according to junior guard Te’a Cooper.
In the moment, though, it was hard to look forward — senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore and junior guard Tyasha Harris both admitted they didn’t even hear what Staley was saying.
“I wasn’t even listening, to be honest,” Cuevas-Moore said.
“To be honest, I don’t know (what she said). I was too busy crying,” Harris said.
But from a pure numbers standpoint, there’s an argument to be made that Friday’s loss may have actually improved South Carolina’s bigger picture.
Heading into the NCAA tournament, the Gamecocks had been pegged as a No. 3 seed by the selection committee, headed out west to the Portland, Oregon, as the lowest No. 3 seed.
After three years of being shipped to distant regionals, the thought of another long trip for potential Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games was disappointing to fans.
Now, with the Arkansas loss, the Gamecocks have likely slipped from the No. 3 line to No. 4, according to bracketologists. And as a higher ranked No. 4 seed, USC may avoid the Portland regional and stay close to home in the Greensboro, North Carolina, regional.
At the same time, the Greensboro regional is likely to feature No. 1 overall seed Baylor who, if the chalk holds, Carolina would have to face in the Sweet 16. But playing in front of a likely pro-Gamecock crowd might make that easier to take.
Of course, with conference tournaments unfolding around the country, projections and predictions of the NCAA field remains extremely fluid, and any team projected as a No. 4 seed has to worry about potentially sliding any further down and losing the right to host the first two rounds of the tournament, which South Carolina would do in Charlotte.
When asked Friday if she thought her team still deserved to host, Staley demurred.
“I have no idea. I’m not even gonna comment on that. It’s in the committee’s hands, and they will decide what that looks like for us, like they do every year,” Staley said.
Cooper echoed those comments.
“I don’t even think we really care too much about that. I think after this loss, we’re just ready to play the next team,” she said.
The Gamecocks will find out that team on March 18, Selection Monday. The bracket reveal will be televised on ESPN at 7 p.m.