For South Carolina and Notre Dame the Final Four is exciting for newcomers and old timers

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South Carolina vs. Notre Dame
Sunday, April 5, 2015, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Amalie Arena, Tampa, Fla.

TAMPA, Fla. — While Notre Dame enters the Final Four for the fifth consecutive time, progressing to the semifinals of the national championship is a first for their opponent South Carolina.

The Gamecocks can look to their coach Dawn Staley, who reached the Final Four three times as a player at Virginia, for guidance on how to handle the frenzy of activity during the event. However, there are some things South Carolina student-athletes can only experience themselves to understand the atmosphere during the pinnacle of women’s basketball

“You know, we’ve never been in this position, so we didn’t really know what to expect,” said senior forward Aleighsa Welch of the experience.

Teams arrive a few days before the semifinal to begin a whirlwind of recreational, media and fan activities. The pace can be dizzying with schedules booked from early morning until evening.

“I think the one thing none of us expected was how easy it can be to get lost kind of in everything that’s going on outside of what your main goal is here and that’s to come in and win two games,” said Welch. “It’s been an exciting factor for the first timers, but we know we’ve got to focus and get to business because we do play tomorrow night.”

For Staley, the players have to work on balancing having fun while continuing to concentrate on the competition, especially with numerous family members at the event.

“I think there is a fine line of enjoying the moment but also focusing on the task at hand,” said Staley.

Relatives who attend the Final Four can also be a distraction.

“There’s a different element, as well, when you have…family members being here,” explained Staley. “I think most of their family members are getting in some time today, so you’ll let them enjoy a little bit of time with their families, but there comes a point where they have to stay in character. We need to stay in character and treat it like a road game.”

Always Exciting for Notre Dame

Even with a history of reaching the semifinals under their belt, the experience never gets old for Notre Dame.

“We’re thrilled to be going back to our fifth consecutive Final Four,” said head coach Muffet McGraw earlier this week during a media conference call. “I think of all of those five, out of all of those five, this team has improved the most. I think this is the youngest team we’ve ever taken.”

There are no seniors in Notre Dame’s starting lineup.

For those younger players, the Final Four is a fresh experience even if they expect to reach that level when they become a part of the Fighting Irish tradition of excellence.

“I am super excited. I came to Notre Dame because I wanted to have an opportunity to play in games like this and get to the Final Four,” said Notre Dame freshman Brianna Turner. “Now I am here in my first year and we are in the Final Four, so it is super exciting.”

Sophomore forward Taya Reimer echoed her sentiments.

“It is really exciting. For me to be playing two seasons (at Notre Dame) and be in two Final Fours is really exciting for me. It is really awesome. It is a dream come true. This team has really focused on what we have to do and we are really excited to be here.”

All That Matters is Sunday

History will not matter Sunday when the two teams face off as both have earned their spot in the semifinal by surviving a hard schedule with some of the toughest opponents in the game.

Reimer hopes to hamper Notre Dame’s athleticism and keep them from capitalizing on their size.

“They are a really physical team, really athletic team,” said Reimer. “We are going to try to contain that and take that away.”

Senior guard Madison Cable also commented on physical size of the Gamecocks.

“They have a very big inside presence, but they also have good guards. We have to focus on our game plan and execute it. They are a very good team, it should be a challenge.”

South Carolina reminds Irish junior guard Jewell Loyd of the Lady Vols.

“I think they remind me a lot of Tennessee, also being an SEC school. They’re very physical, they have great posts and they have a really physical defense.”

South Carolina freshman A’ja Wilson puts the challenge of taking down Notre Dame in perspective.

“Go big or go home,” exclaimed Wilson. “It is something that stuck with me, whether I am on the court or off the court. Gotta just live it up, because you never know what might happen the next day.”

Junior guard Tiffany Mitchell thinks the Gameocks are in a great position to win their semifinal and advance to the title game.

“I think we’re in a really good place,” said Mitchell. “We’re riding that wave after two tough games against UNC and Florida State, and we pulled those out so I feel like we’re pretty good coming into this game. A lot of people don’t have us winning this game so we switched into an underdog role and we’ll use that as motivation.”

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