- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Dawn Staley's trip to Africa last summer on behalf of the Clinton Foundation was the inspiration for the "Be the change..." T-shirts the South Carolina players wear as they move through this NCAA tournament.
The Gamecocks' head coach returned from the trip awed by the need she saw and compelled to help, and she wanted her team to embrace the spirit of lending a hand.
She made the famous Gandhi quote her team's theme for the season and began a "50,000 Random Acts of Kindness" campaign with her players, set up Facebook and Twitter accounts and asked the Gamecocks fans and the community around Columbia, S.C., to pitch in with service projects.
The Gamecocks now find themselves in a position to alter their own world in an impactful way, coming into the Stanford Regional as a No. 1 seed with a chance to earn a trip to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in school history.
So the question is, can the Gamecocks tap into their mantra of change on the court as well and defeat fourth-seeded North Carolina Sunday to advance to their first regional final?
"It starts off the court, as far as how we connect with each other and how we try to be here for each other," said South Carolina junior forward Aleighsa Welch. "And I think it shows on the court. We have great team chemistry. We have great relationships. We look at each other as family and we're willing to do anything for each other."
That chemistry will get a big test at Maples Pavilion against a familiar foe. South Carolina (29-4) must embrace a change in fortunes from a Dec. 18 loss to the Tar Heels in Myrtle Beach, S.C. A young North Carolina team scored one of its biggest wins of the season that night, defeating the Gamecocks 74-66 and handing South Carolina its first loss.
Now, all the way in California, the Gamecocks look to draw even with stakes that couldn't be higher.
This game matches two of the country's best young teams. South Carolina has one senior (a reserve) on the roster; North Carolina's starting lineup features four freshmen and a sophomore. South Carolina's freshman center Alaina Coates was the SEC Rookie of the Year; North Carolina's Diamond DeShields the ACC Rookie of the Year.
Welch sees two teams that have matured greatly since mid-December.
"We've gotten a lot better over the course of the season, both of us playing difficult conference schedules," Welch said. "We've grown up, both teams. They're a lot more disciplined basketball team. We're the same way. You're talking about a difference between relatively at the beginning of the season and now at the end of the season. A lot of time has elapsed in between those two games. I definitely think, for the most part, it's just a maturing factor."
No player perhaps has matured more than the stellar DeShields, who holds ACC freshman records for points (616), double-digit scoring games (30), field goals made and field goals attempted. She scored 17 points in the win against South Carolina three months ago.
Teams have been working all season to stop the versatile young star to no avail -- she's coming off a 24-point, 12-rebound game against Michigan State in the second round.
"She loves that challenge," said North Carolina associate head coach Andrew Calder. "Someone thinking they can guard her. We've seen 'diamond-and-1' and 'triangle-and-2' against us. A lot of junk defenses. She accepts that. She looks at it as a mental battle."
DeShields called it flattering. And motivating.
"It's interesting to see how coaches want to contain my game, but I say to my teammates, 'Make them respect you too,'" DeShields said. "If the defense wants to go toward me, it can hurt them in the long run."
Staley calls DeShields, who leads UNC with 18.5 points a game, "fearless."
"But when you pay so much attention to Diamond, you can tend to forget about all that other talent that is lined up next to her," Staley said. "So we have to make sure that we're disciplined on both sides of the ball, and play our style of play. And not get into the fray of playing quick basketball."
Calder said his team will need to play good defense in the post, rebound well and push tempo against a "very talented" South Carolina team.
"We have to attack," Calder said.
North Carolina guard Xylina McDaniel has close ties to the Gamecocks' program, with former high school teammate Asia Dozier playing at South Carolina, along with former AAU teammate Khadijah Sessions, and Gamecocks guard Tiffany Mitchell, who was a frequent opponent back in their prep basketball days.
In fact, McDaniel was very close to going to Staley's program, choosing instead to be a little farther away from home in Chapel Hill, N.C.
"But my decision has been, by far, the best decision I've ever made in my life," McDaniel said.
McDaniel said the Gamecocks are "beatable."
"They are a No. 1 seed, but they are beatable," McDaniel said. "I think it's going to be a pretty good game.
"We'll be seen as an underdog. But from the team and the coaching staff, we see ourselves as equals."
A young North Carolina team scored one of its biggest wins of the season in December when it handed South Carolina its first loss. Sunday, the rivals meet in the Sweet 16.