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For South Carolina, Sweet 16 means UNC rematch, potential road game at Stanford

Hall of Fame player Dawn Staley has brought South Carolina back to the Sweet 16.
Hall of Fame player Dawn Staley has brought South Carolina back to the Sweet 16.Scott Mammoser

South Carolina may have been chosen as the final No. 1 seed over Stanford, but if the two win their next round games, the regional final would be at Maples Pavilion, giving the Cardinal a home-court advantage.

“I think it sucks!” was the exclamation from South Carolina coach Dawn Staley after her team defeated Oregon State 78-69 in Tuesday night’s second round game in Seattle.

“The people at Stanford really appreciate their basketball, we’ve been there on a number of occasions, but I think it should be at a neutral site, it should keep the playing field competitive, make the field a little more equal.”

Stanford (31-3), led by Staley’s coach on the 1996 Olympic team – Tara VanDerveer, defeated South Carolina (29-4) as the No. 1 seed, 76-60, in the 2012 Sweet 16 at Fresno, Calif., and squeaked past it by four in a December 2012 meeting in Columbia. All of the sites for the NCAA Tournament are pre-determined.

To set up that Elite Eight matchup, however, the Gamecocks will first have to contain fourth-seeded North Carolina (26-9), one of four teams to defeat them this season. Freshman Diamond DeShields leads the Tar Heels with 18 points per game.

“It gives us a lot of motivation this time around,” said South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch, who posted a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds in the win over Oregon State. “We need to come out and execute our game plan, they’re a talented team, and we need to lay it all out on the line, we’re excited.”

North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame alongside Staley in September, is still recovering from leukemia treatments. According to the team Web site, she still hopes to return to the sidelines this season, and there is a chance that could be Sunday.

The other three losses the Gamecocks endured this season were 67-65 in overtime at Texas A&M Jan. 16, at Tennessee March 2 and to Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals.

Led by SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell's 15.5 points per game, the Gamecocks won the league regular season title for the first time ever, and a win Sunday will join the 2002 South Carolina team for the deepest run in program history.

“It’s awesome,” said SEC Coach of the Year Staley. “Our players have evolved, we want to win a national championship, and the only way to do that is to play on the second weekend. I’m extremely happy for our players.”

After being sent 3,000 miles to Seattle for its opening weekend games, the Gamecocks will not travel back to Columbia and stay on the West Coast. Lower seeded teams such as Texas A&M, the Tar Heels, Kentucky, and Baylor were able to play on their home courts. Even seventh-seeded LSU used a Maravich Center advantage to upset West Virginia, but the Gamecocks couldn’t have been sent to Baton Rouge to avoid an early-round meeting with the SEC rival Tigers. South Carolina had been to California on a road trip earlier this season, walloping San Diego State by 34 and eventual Pacific-12 champion Southern California by 20.

Stanford and Penn State (24-7) will tipoff at 1:30 p.m. PT Sunday, and South Carolina and North Carolina will follow at 4 p.m. PT on ESPN2. The winners will meet April 1, with a spot in the Final Four in Nashville on the line.

The first game will be the last for either Stanford senior Chiney Ogwumike (26 points and 12 rebounds per game) or the Nittany Lions’ Maggie Lucas (21.5 ppg).

It also serves mentioning that South Carolina assistant coach Nikki McCray won a gold medal playing for VanDerveer at Atlanta in 1996, then one for Nell Fortner in 2000.