Both South Carolina and South Dakota State have recent NCAA tournament experience, but this time each team is trying to make its stay last a little longer.
The fourth-seeded Lady Gamecocks will meet the No. 13 seed Jackrabbits on Saturday in a first-round game in Boulder, Colo.Ranked 17th in the AP poll, South Carolina (24-7) is making its second straight NCAA appearance after reaching the regional semifinals last year as a No. 5 seed. To get there, the Lady Gamecocks knocked off Purdue, which had beaten South Dakota State in a first-round contest.Last season's berth was South Carolina's first since 2003, so the squad may be better prepared this time despite graduating some key players."Our team is a little bit younger but they've adjusted rather quickly. They've grown up rather quickly," senior guard Ieasia Walker said. "I feel like we know what to expect and we know what we have to do to win the game."Walker, the SEC's defensive player of the year after averaging 2.7 steals, anchors a defense that ranks fourth in the country allowing 49.5 points per game. South Carolina is also one of the nation's better rebounding teams with an average differential of plus-9.3.Taking aim at that stingy defense will be the Jackrabbits (25-7), who have won six in a row and 19 of 21. They claimed the Summit League tournament championship for the fifth straight year, but they've been eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament each of the last three seasons.Though relatively untested in conference play, the Jackrabbits own wins against NCAA tournament teams Nebraska -- the sixth seed in the same regional -- and Middle Tennessee."We kind of need to come into it with a different mentality this year," senior center Katie Lingle said. "Rather than just being happy to be a part of the field of 64, I think that we've set our goals a little bit higher for ourselves this year."Walker will try to help limit the backcourt duo of Ashley Eide and Megan Waytashek, who average a combined 27.7 points. Waytashek is one of the country's top 3-point shooters at 42.1 percent, while Eide knocks down 37.7 percent from beyond the arc.Meanwhile, 3-point shooting is a major weakness for the Lady Gamecocks, who shoot only 25.1 percent and have made three or fewer 3s in seven of their last nine games.Free throws could also prove crucial for South Carolina in a close game. The squad is hitting 55.6 percent from the line this season compared to 71.7 percent for South Dakota State.The winner of the programs' first-ever meeting will play No. 5 seed Colorado or 12th-seeded Kansas on Monday.