When the announcement came across on Monday night that South Carolina was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, as ESPN and other predicting websites had posted for days, Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley smiled.
But then she returned back to her usually stoic look.
Yes, the Gamecocks were in as a high seed, but they were getting shipped all the way up the east coast to another far away regional.
The defending national champions are being sent far away from their fan base.
“That’s disheartening on my part; the NCAA talks about putting people in the seats,” Staley said. “We’ve done that.
"We’ve done that for four years and we’ve only been to a place which our fans could (easily) drive to once.”
South Carolina will host the first two rounds of the tournament, starting Friday at 7:30 p.m. against MEAC champion North Carolina A&T. If the team wins that game and wins on Sunday at home against the Friday winner between No. 7 California and No. 10 Virginia (Staley's alma mater), it’ll have to travel to Albany, New York to play again.
That site is 840 miles away, roughly a 12 to 13-hour drive for any fans from the Midlands wanting to come up to watch the games and cheer on the Gamecocks in person.
It’s the third time in four years USC fans will have to either fly or make half-a-day hauls to second-weekend games.
The Gamecocks have been shipped out to California twice, most recently last year, and will have another flight this year. The only time they were close to home was in 2015 when they played the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Greensboro, N.C.
That process is starting to frustrate the Gamecocks, who have led the nation in attendance the last four years.
“I just want them to get it right for teams and fans like ourselves," Staley said. "We work hard and we put ourselves in a great position and it seems like, time and time again, we always get the short end of the stick.”
The closest site this year would be Lexington, Kentucky which is 437 miles away, roughly a seven-hour drive. But even that is about half of the drive fans will need to make for Albany.
“I would have loved to have had Lexington, to have the fans come out one more time," South Carolina's first national player of the year A'ja Wilson said. "But at the same time, we can only control what we can control.”
South Carolina will host Cal and Virginia's 5 p.m. game on Friday, before the Gamecocks take the court against the Aggies.
Staley understands her comments could come off as complaining, she said, but she’s just fighting for her team and doing what she doesn’t think many people are doing nationally.
The Gamecocks are four-time reigning Southeastern Conference Champions and won it all a season ago. But that and being the defending national champions might not count for much to the tournament committee.
“I have to speak up for our program,” Staley said. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the world that’s speaking up for our program and for our fans and what we’ve accomplished over the last four years.”
Staley challenged Gamecock fans to make their presence felt this weekend. She told the crowd that assembled to watch the selection show that Mississippi State has already sold 10,000 tickets for their first two games, and said she wants to top that.
"We won't be outdone," Staley said. "I don't care if we're one over (their total)."
Staley thanked the fans for their support, which includes record-setting attendance figures over the last four years.