USC WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

Target on their backs

Defending champ USC embraces underdog role in NCAAs

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COLUMBIA - South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is done talking about how her defending national champions get the "short end of the stick" when the NCAA tournament rolls around.

But she isn't done with using it as a psychological ploy.

"We will continue to play the underdog role. I don't think anyone has us cutting down the nets," said Staley, whose No. 2 seed Gamecocks (26-6) open the NCAA Tournament on Friday against 15th seeded North Carolina A&T (23-8).

On the other side of the sub-regional, No. 7 seed California (21-10) takes on 10th-seeded Virginia (18-13).

But as the brackets were announced Monday, it wasn't the first weekend that bothered Staley. Instead, she was upset her team would end up in Albany, New York, for a regional instead of Lexington, Kentucky. She said it would be a third straight year her fans had to fly after regionals in South Dakota instead of being able to drive to Kentucky as they typically do for Southeastern Conference road games. She said her team and fans didn't get enough credit for building a program that leads the nation in attendance.

While Staley emphasized fans and travel, the matchup isn't friendly either. The No. 1 seed in Albany is undefeated Connecticut. The Huskies are only one of two teams, along with Notre Dame, that Staley has played more than twice and never beaten. Two-time SEC Player of the Year A'ja Wilson has a trophy case full of awards, but has lost to UConn by 25 twice. She also has fallen to UConn by 12 and 11 points.

Wilson shrugged off the bracket. She said she likes seeing new places and is used to getting a lot of attention.

"I feel like all four years there has been a target on my back so it's the same thing," Wilson said Thursday.

Staley said one thing will remain true until someone beats the Gamecocks.

"The national championship will come through us," Staley said. "I like that."

FRIENDS FIRST: Perhaps there are no more friendly rivals in the first round than California coach Lindsay Gottlieb and Virginia coach Joanne Boyle. About 20 years ago, Gottlieb was set to graduate from Brown, but she didn't want to be a lawyer like the rest of her family. A friend told her to go to Duke and talk to Boyle, who was an assistant for the Blue Devils. Boyle gave Gottlieb an hour of her time, even as her team prepared for the NCAA tournament.

"We've become much more than just mentor and mentee. She is one of my best friends. But I am definitely aware I wouldn't be in this seat without her," Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb and Boyle first coached together at Richmond for three years from 2002 to 2005, and Gottlieb then followed Boyle to Cal. Gottlieb took over as Bears head coach in 2011 when Boyle left for Virginia.

Since then, Gottlieb has been to six NCAA tournaments - and one Final Four - in seven seasons, while Boyle has the Cavaliers back in the NCAAs for the first time since 2010.

Boyle is a little more uncomfortable playing someone she calls a really good friend. She didn't even think of it as a possible matchup, but as soon as the pairing was announced, she said she thought "OK, story line, here we go."

"I don't think anyone in this business likes to play their friends," Boyle said.

NOT SCARED: North Carolina A&T coach Tarrell Robinson is reminding his team they have won 19 of their last 20 and there isn't a hotter team in Columbia this weekend. He learned to be careful to make sure his Aggies don't get lost in the moment from their 2016 NCAA Tournament appearance with a 16th seeded team that played at Notre Dame.

"We saw the big shamrock on the scoreboard, and our kids were like 'oooh' and 'aaah' and by then you are down 20," Robinson said.

The Aggies lost by only 10 against SEC teams Georgia and Auburn, which Robinson said removed some of the mystique of playing SEC teams.

And no matter what happens Friday night, Robinson said playing the defending national champions is always a good measuring stick for a program.

WELCOME BACK VIRGINIA: South Carolina is the defending national champions. California is in its sixth NCAA Tournament in seven seasons. North Carolina A&T was in the NCAAs in 2016. But Virginia, in its first tournament since 2010, is making a 25th appearance.