South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, center, watches Tyasha Harris (52) dribble the ball against Virginia guard Dominique Toussaint (4) during the first half of a second-round game of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 18, 2018, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated Virginia 66-56. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
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South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson, right, drives to the hoop against North Carolina A&T forward Alexus Lessears, left, during the second half of a game in the first-round of the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Friday, March 16, 2018, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated North Carolina A&T 63-52. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley was relieved her young team made it through two up-and-down performances last weekend to reach the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.

That relief quickly turned to work for the Gamecocks.

Staley has spent this week trying to ensure the letdowns won't continue during the Albany Regional semifinals.

The second-seeded Gamecocks (28-6) play Saturday against surprising Buffalo (29-5), which is one of two No. 11 seeds remaining in the bracket — Central Michigan is the other — and eliminated No. 6 seed South Florida and No. 3 seed Florida State. Staley does not want South Carolina to be Buffalo's third upset victim and has worked to correct the mistakes in wins over North Carolina A&T and Virginia.

"I just think we've got to take better care of the ball," Staley said. "I think it's going to come down to the team that can make plays outside of rhythm plays, the ones you set up and diagram. So the intangibles are going to be key, making sure we're locked in to getting loose balls, understanding what we need to do and that we don't have any large mental breaks."

The mental breaks were apparent for the 2017 national champs in their tournament opener last Friday, when the Aggies cut a 20-point lead to seven in the fourth quarter before the Gamecocks held on for a 63-52 victory. Things were a little crisper in Sunday night's 66-56 win over the Cavaliers, although probably not as sharp as South Carolina will need to be to make a third Final Four in four seasons.

Senior forward A'ja Wilson pledged after the North Carolina A&T win that things would improve. She said the Gamecocks are in the process of making that happen by focusing on execution — crisp passes, strong footwork and lockdown defense.


It was a formula South Carolina used a year ago and one Wilson said could serve them well this time, too, as they continue advancing in the bracket.

"We've got to focus on us," Wilson said, "and if we have an understanding of what we need to get done, it makes it easier on us when we get out there to play whoever we've got to play."

The deeper the Gamecocks go, the more postseason experience gained by their younger players — six of 12 on South Carolina's roster were not part of the NCAA title run a year ago — and the more prepared they'll be in bigger moments, Staley said.

"I think the most important thing is to advance," she said. "I think this team has played close games all season long. This team has made adjustments on the fly, and I think we've just got to play."

Wilson, a three-time Southeastern Conference player of the year and the favorite for several national awards, understands that some observers may be looking past the Sweet 16 match to a potential Elite Eight showdown with overall No. 1 seed UConn (34-0), which faces fifth-seeded Duke (24-8) on Saturday.

Right now, she said, Buffalo is the only concern.

Wilson also knows she has to step up, even though she had 44 points and shot 14-for-32 in the two wins.

"Even though they're saying we're not playing our best, we're still in it," Wilson said. "Just to have the opportunity to still be dancing, no matter where we're dancing, it's a blessing."


2018 NCAA women's bracket