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South Carolina begins title defense vs. North Carolina A&T

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said entering the NCAA Women’s Tournament as the defending national champion is a nice label to hold.

“I like the defending national champions title,” Staley said, “because it’s something that doesn’t come by very often. Absolutely, I like to hear that. But I don’t think that does anything for our team in how they need to prep to win another one.”

The Gamecocks play in the first round against North Carolina A&T on Friday night at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.

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South Carolina (26-6) is the No. 2 seed for the Albany Region, meaning the Gamecocks would be slotted against undefeated Connecticut if both teams avoid upsets to reach the regional final.

“We’re going to go out and play,” Staley said, noting she’s most disappointed that if the team advances to the second week it will create a hardship for the team’s fans to travel to New York. “I have to speak up for our program. … You’re going to have to beat some pretty good teams. Is it an impossible feat? Obviously not, we’ve seen that last year.”

For the time being, it will be the last home game or games for South Carolina senior forward A’ja Wilson.

“It’s tournament time,” Wilson said. “Everyone is playing their best. For us, we just have to focus on us.”

North Carolina A&T (23-8) is seeded No. 15 in the region after winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament for the second time in three seasons.

For the Gamecocks, who are in the tournament field for the seventh year in a row, this is the fifth straight season they begin NCAA play with 25 or more victories.

“It surely is about North Carolina A&T,” Staley said. “Thank goodness, we’re part of the top 16 and we get to host and we put ourselves in position to do that.”

South Carolina is coming off its fourth consecutive SEC Tournament championship. That run included knocking off Mississippi State, which is a No. 1 regional seed, in the title game.

“What we need to do is play as close to possible to what we played like all year long, in particular our last three games in the SEC Tournament,” said Staley, who said she has a fully healthy team.

South Carolina is 11-2 all-time in NCAA Tournament games played in Columbia.

“My young ladies are excited and humbled to have the opportunity to compete against the 2017 national champions,” Aggies coach Tarrell Robinson said. “We think our culture and daily values are on track for our program to continue to play in games such these.”

The Aggies, who hold an 11-game winning streak, are in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time, including three bids in a nine-year span.

Robinson has the Aggies in the tournament for the second time. They lost in 2016 at Notre Dame.

“Now my young women get to see if what we focus on every day in practice and talk about daily measures up to a program that has been to the top of the mountain in this sport,” Robinson said. “… For me, competing against the likes of Dawn Staley, Hall of Fame player and soon to be Hall of Fame coach, is a dream come true.”

Senior guard Kala Green is one of the sparkplugs for North Carolina A&T, which ranks first in the MEAC in assists, rebounding and forced turnovers.

The winner of this matchup takes on Virginia or California in the second round.

–Credit: FOX Sports Digital

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