COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina women’s basketball program has ended Tennessee’s stranglehold on the sport and reigns supreme over Connecticut.
No, the Gamecocks can’t touch the 17 national titles the Huskies and Lady Vols own between thing, but South Carolina is No. 1 when it comes to fan support.
While women’s college basketball is plagued by empty arenas, interest in Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks has increased exponentially — they averaged 12,540 fans in 14 home games this season.
Staley said the two go hand in hand and are a big reason for the Gamecocks turnaround. South Carolina (30-2) is the top seed of the NCAA Tournament’s Greensboro Regional. It will take on Savannah State (21-10) in an opening round game Friday.
The Gamecocks could take on Syracuse or Nebraska on Sunday.
The atmosphere change is evident to everyone, particular Gamecock opponents.
“Great crowd, great atmosphere,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. “Aren’t you all proud about how far you have come? Think about it. Think about how far you have come.”
Staley’s first season in 2008-09, South Carolina averaged 2,381 a game in 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena. That’s expanded nearly six-fold this season.
The list of average attendance reads like a top 10 of women’s basketball.
Tennessee brought in 10,913 a game to finish second with Louisville, Notre Dame and Iowa State rounding out the top five.
Two-time defending national champion Connecticut — which drew 145 fans for Geno Auriemma’s debut in 1985 — is sixth with an average of 8,930 fans for its 13 home games.
The Gamecocks may have a ways to go to match how Lady Vols and Huskie fans travel, but South Carolina’s success has put it in some unique company.
The Gamecocks carry a 32-game home win streak into this weekend’s regional, a run of success that dates to Texas A&M’s 50-48 win at the Colonial Life Arena in 2013, when its average attendance was 3,952.
ESPN analyst Kara Lawson recalls going down to watch some South Carolina preseason workouts about four years back. “There wasn’t a lot of buzz around the school then,” she said.
Staley understood when she arrived as coach after the 2008 season it would be a tough sell to fire up a women’s basketball program regularly routed by Southeastern Conference heavyweights.
She remembered her first home game, a 52-45 loss to rival Clemson attended by 2,315.
When it was done, Staley picked up a microphone and urged those who attended that if they stayed strong alongside her, things would change.
As promised, they have.
There were 12 games with crowds of over 10,000, including a high of 17,156 for a 68-60 win over Kentucky on Jan. 11.
The Gamecocks are hosting NCAA Tournament games for the first time since 2002. The NCAA decided to use predetermined sites, meaning South Carolina schools were banned from hosting because the state flies the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds. That’s why South Carolina spent the past two years on the road in the NCAAs.
The organization changed its criteria to let those schools host because of merit, meaning South Carolina can play at home.
“I think the committee got it right in implementing a rule that will allow us to play,” Staley said. “Our players deserve it, our fans deserve it, our university deserves it.”
Staley, 44, certainly does her part. She’s a regular part of the community through appearances and talks. She engages fans on social media and routinely receives recognition for her charitable works, last month honored by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department with her own deputy’s badge.
Before games, Staley poses for pictures with fans and makes time to talk with friends and supporters.
“I’m invested in this,” she said. “You get out what you put in.”
Lawson said Staley’s persona helps — as does the state of South Carolina producing plenty of prep standouts who now play for the coach.
“You get a little more buy-in (from fans) when it’s players they saw grow up,” Lawson said.
South Carolina’s starting five features three Palmetto State players. Its bench is led by 6-foot-5 A’ja Wilson and 6-4 Alaina Coates. Both drew the attention of colleges everywhere as McDonald’s All-Americans from the Columbia area.
Her first few years, Staley concentrated largely on improving the team’s talent and performance. She’s grateful people paid attention.
Said Staley, “Our fans have painted an incredible, beautiful picture that I don’t think I could have ever imagined would have turned out this way.”
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