Norfolk State has a huge challenge ahead of it in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when they face unbeaten South Carolina.
South Carolina — the defending national champions, enter Friday’s matchup with the Spartans carrying a perfect 32-0 record, winning by an average of better than 30 points per game.
Despite the odds against them, the Spartans expressed excitement about matching up against the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
“I kind of was disappointed watching the bracket but just thankful to be here,” said MEAC Defensive Player of the Year Camille Downs about being selected to play South Carolina in the tournament. “Not a lot of teams get the opportunity to play against the No. 1 team in the country. Dawn Staley, too. Getting scouted by her. I’m just thankful to be here.”
Although Norfolk State will be appearing in its first NCAA tournament since 2002, players say they are ready for this opportunity.
“We’ve been mentally prepared since our regular season tournament started,” said Downs. “We just continue to do what we do in practice every day, keep the confidence high.”
Spartans guard and All-MEAC selection Deja Francis added, “Coach LV instilled from the beginning, we was going to win three championships. We did. Since last year when we were the (MEAC) runner-ups, we knew what we were coming into this season to do.”
This is the second straight year the defending champions will be facing a MEAC team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, then-MEAC champion Howard lost 79-21 to South Carolina in the opening round. Spartans head coach Larry Vickers talked about his team getting an opportunity to match up with them this time around.
“They’re probably the face of women’s basketball now at this point,” said coach Vickers. “We know obviously any time you play a South Carolina team, you got to rebound the basketball. They play I don’t know how many bigs, 10 it feels like. The trenches are something we’ve been really good at this year. You can look at our stats and tell that we don’t shoot a ton of threes. We’ve been a team that kind of plays within the trenches, and so do they.”
South Carolina star Aliyah Boston was the topic of conversation in the game plan for Norfolk State.
Boston, who won her second straight SEC Player of the Year award, was dominant in the Gamecocks’ tournament run last year, averaging 16.8 points and 15.2 rebounds in six games.
According to the Spartans’ head coach, it will take the entire team being on one accord to stop the future top WNBA draft pick.
“She’s seen everything,” said Vickers. “She’s seen man, zone, she’s been fronted, doubled. Teams have dug, and teams haven’t dug. Teams have tried to score and take away everybody else. I mean, at this point she’s a senior and she’s been playing since day one. She’s really seen pretty much everything. But hopefully, you can get her on one of those days, take away potentially her favorite move.”
Norfolk State and South Carolina are set to tip off at 2 p.m. with the game airing on ESPN.