COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina has set the bar exceedingly high.
The top-seeded Gamecocks opened the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament by cruising to a 79-21 win over Howard. They will face Miami, which defeated South Florida earlier on Friday, in a second-round game on Sunday.
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina’s star forward and a front-runner for player of the year, and Sania Feagin led the team with 10 points each, and the Gamecocks were up 40 at halftime. Howard’s 4 points in the first half were the lowest in a half in the history of the tournament.
The Gamecocks moved methodically and intentionally with Boston on the floor, taking their time to set up their shots while Howard double-, triple- and even quadruple-teamed Boston at times. When Boston rested, South Carolina took advantage of its speed with powerful drives by Destiny Littleton, a senior guard.
Iyanna Warren secured all of Howard’s 4 points in the first half, scoring a total of 8 by game’s end. Howard tried drive after drive, moving quickly down the court. But South Carolina’s towering defense could not be matched.
The Gamecocks are hoping to secure a national championship title for the first time since 2017.
This year’s women’s tournament is the first to be officially marketed as a part of “March Madness” — the NCAA’s popular branding term that, until last fall, had been reserved exclusively for the men’s basketball tournament. Many of the changes to this year’s tournament were spurred after players, coaches and others raised concerns last year about how the NCAA seemed to treat the women’s tournament as a second-class event.
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At Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, SC, players draped themselves in March Madness towels; March Madness banners were draped behind both baskets; and digital displays included the logo. Cheerleaders threw out March Madness towels to a packed arena. At home, viewers of ESPN were also able to see the logo superimposed on the court (tournament organizers said decals will be applied to the women’s courts starting in the round of 16 games, which are played at neutral sites rather than at the home arenas of top teams).
LeLe Grissett, a graduate student guard for South Carolina, said she hadn’t seen the March Madness merchandise that the men’s teams had received. “But what we have, I don’t think it’s a difference” over last year, she said, adding that she had seen a couple of videos of women’s players not fitting into shirts that were included in their gift baskets. “It’s not equal. I don’t think so.”
But Coach Dawn Staley said the change in atmosphere was palpable with the added March Madness signage.
“It’s a big difference,” she said, adding that “you can’t tell from walking around the building and seeing the signage” that the Gamecocks were playing at their home arena.
“It’s a really good start to shedding some of the inequities that occurred prior to this tournament,” she continued. “But we have to look way down the line, five years, six years, seven years, as many years as it took for them to uncover what was happening to our tournament.”
ESPN’s announcers protested Florida legislation during South Carolina’s win.
ESPN’s coverage of the women’s tournament briefly veered from basketball on Friday afternoon, when a handful of on-air personalities expressed their opposition to a Florida proposal that would limit classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.
The demonstrations came after Disney, which controls ESPN, faced pressure and criticism over its silence about the measure, which the company began to pass publicly only after it the Florida Legislature. They were among the most high-profile examples of the protests that Disney employees have staged in recent days to express their own opposition to the measure, and to their employer’s calibrated approach to lobbying about it.
“To be honest with you, we thought we were going to come here today and really celebrate a sport that has meant so much, and done so much, including for so many in the LGBTQI+ communities,” Elle Duncan, an ESPN anchor, said from a studio during halftime of the Howard-South Carolina game on Friday. “But we understand the gravity of this legislation and also how it’s affecting so many families across this country, and because of that, our allyship is going to take a front seat, and with that, we’re going to pause in solidarity.”
Courtside in Columbia, SC, minutes later, Courtney Lyle and Carolyn Peck also discussed the legislation, which Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign into law.
“Normally at this time, we would take a look back at the first half, but there are things bigger than basketball that need to be addressed at this time,” Lyle, the play-by-play commentator, said. “Our friends, our family, our co-workers, the players and coaches in our community are hurting right now.”
Peck, who led the women’s basketball programs at Florida and Purdue, soon joined in: “The threat to any human rights is a threat to all human rights, and at this time, Courtney and I, we’re going to take a pause from our broadcast to show our love and support for our friends, our family and our colleagues.”
The game soon resumed — with Lyle and Peck briefly watching in silence.
ESPN, which had been prepared for the possibility of a demonstration, said in a statement: “Our colleagues have both our respect and our support.”
Remy Tumin reported from Columbia, and Alan Blinder from Atlanta.