COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina women's basketball team is suddenly this college town's new darlings.
Nearly 100 fans came to see the team off Thursday as the Gamecocks headed to California to take on Stanford in the round of 16.
The crowd lining the way to the buses carrying the team to the airport wasn't much smaller than the crowds that used to show up in the arena to watch the Gamecocks when coach Dawn Staley took over four years ago.
Staley is used to bigger crowds. She went to three Final Fours as a player and won three Olympic gold medals. But her players are usually just concentrating on class by this time in March.
This is South Carolina's first NCAA tournament trip since 2003.
"I'm so happy for them, They worked for it," Staley said. "They really worked for it. Sweet 16, that's a tangible thing."
And the coach made sure her team felt the love, walking them through the corridor of cheering fans and their garnet pom-poms.
This South Carolina team has already achieved things few others have done, making the semifinals in the Southeastern Conference tournament and beating Tennessee for the first time since 1980. And the fifth-seeded Gamecocks might be playing their best basketball of the season, scoring a season-high 80 points in a first-round NCAA win over Eastern Michigan and beating No. 4 seed Purdue on the Boilermakers' home floor.
Saturday's game against Stanford will be the classic battle of offense versus defense.
The Cardinal are fifth in the nation in scoring, averaging 76.7 points a game, while South Carolina is fourth in the nation in defense, allowing 50.7 points a game.
Staley said the key to giving Stanford just its second loss of the season will be taking advantage of her team's quickness.
"They have a height advantage, probably at every position. For us, we have a speed advantage. So we've got to use it," Staley said.
To advance, Staley will have to beat one of her coaching mentors. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer led the Olympic team in 1996, when Staley won the first of three gold medals. Staley reached out to VanDerveer when she was thinking about going into coaching at Temple in 2000 — VanDerveer told Staley it was a bad idea.
"I kind of did what I did as a player. I was a rebel," Staley said smiling. "I took a chance on this coaching thing. I don't think she knew how serious I was or how serious Temple was about hiring me."
Staley has never beaten Stanford before. She went 0-2 against the Cardinal in her playing career at Virginia, losing to them both times in the Final Four. She is 0-3 as a coach, including losses by 31 and 38 to Stanford in the past two seasons.
"They really rocked us," Staley said.
But people in Columbia aren't talking about that now. Instead, they are wrapped up in this team and their run. The popular T-shirt has Staley's favorite slogan — "I believe" — on it. Staley, wearing a jersey with her favorite No. 5, threw out the first pitch at a Gamecocks baseball game this week. More than a dozen reporters turned out for her news conference Thursday, after years of having little more than the score of the game show up on local TV.
Her players, carrying their pillows and carry-on bags for the trip, beamed as they walked through the crowd. Junior Ieasia Walker said the team's success this year makes them confident they can beat Stanford and keep going.
"Winning does that for a program," Walker said. "We've been doing good all season and as the season progresses, we've been getting better."