No. 1 seed South Carolina women blow past Presbyterian 91-39 to begin March Madness run

No. 1 seed South Carolina women blow past Presbyterian 91-39 to begin March Madness run

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Chloe Kitts wanted to improve her confidence heading into the NCAA Tournament. She likely gave everyone who picked South Carolina to win it plenty of good feelings going forward.

Kitts tied her career high with 21 points on 9-of-9 shooting with a game-high 13 rebounds as the No. 1 overall seed Gamecocks blew past Presbyterian 91-39 on Friday to begin their March Madness run.

Kitts, a lanky, 6-footer, has started all season, but her scoring production had dipped with a total of 22 points the past four games. She found her game against the Blue Hose, not hesitating to take open looks.

“I feel like it was important for my confidence,” Kitts said of her performance, which tied her best scoring set in a win over Bowling Green earlier this year. “My teammates were uplifting me, just finding me and passing me the ball.”

Kitts gave a boost to a team missing two starters in Kamilla Cardoso and Bree Hall. Cardoso was serving a one-game suspension after getting ejected for fighting last time out at the SEC Tournament finals on March 10. Hall was held out for precautionary reasons, according to coach Dawn Staley.

“It’s just something we felt like we had enough going into this game to win the game,” Staley said. “We'll see how she feels tomorrow. But she's fine.”

As for Kitts, Staley said she came up big when her team needed it.

The Gamecocks (33-0) moved five wins away from the 10th perfect championship season by overwhelming the Blue Hose (21-15) of the Big South Conference for a second time this season. Next comes another rematch against No. 8 seed North Carolina on Sunday. The Tar Heels gave up almost all of a 16-point lead before holding on to defeat No. 9 seed Michigan State earlier Friday.

Te-Hina Paopao had 18 points and freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley scored 17 for South Carolina, which moved to 12-0 in NCAA Tournament openers under coach Dawn Staley.

The 6-foot-7 Cardoso, tossed in the SEC finals for shoving LSU's Flau'jae Johnson to the ground late in the Gamecocks 79-72 victory, is expected to be back against the Tar Heels.

Fulwiley had five of South Carolina's nine 3-pointers and Paopao the other four.

South Carolina came out almost as fast as it did against Presbyterian back on Dec. 16 when it defeated the future Big South Tournament champions 99-29.

Sania Feagin, a reserve starting with Cardoso and Hall out, had six points in the game's first five minutes and Fulwiley, the SEC Tournament MVP, had two 3-pointers in the first quarter as the Gamecocks opened a 23-10 lead.

Presbyterian could not respond to the larger, faster, lengthier South Carolina and trailed 48-25 at the break.

The Blue Hose advanced to this game with a First Four victory over Sacred Heart, 49-42.

Paige Kindseth and Tilda Sjokvist had nine points each for the Blue Hose.

Sjokvist said while the loss was disappointing, the experience of the large crowd and facing the Gamecocks will last with her forever. “Playing on the big stage, that's what every athlete wants to do,” she said.

FULWILEY FIRST

Fulwiley has been steady throughout the season, not letting her emotions get the better of her on the court. Her first NCAA Tournament game was different, Fulwiley acknowledged. “The atmosphere was great, I was happy to be home,” she said. “I was just excited to be here with my teammates and living in the moment.”

BUILDING PC

Presbyterian made history this season with its first Big South Conference Tournament title in Division I, its first NCAA appearance and tournament victory. But coach Alaura Sharp understands that building a program at Division I's smallest school — Presbyterian has fewer than 1,000 students — takes drive and patience. “I think you lay a foundation for your program,” she said. “I think the foundation of our program has been lifted up to where we'll start going forward and into the future.”

UP NEXT

South Carolina faces another rematch in the second round Sunday against North Carolina, which was ahead by 11 points before the Gamecocks rallied for a 65-58 victory at the ACC/SEC Challenge in November.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness