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Originally published March 23, 2014 at 5:00 PM | Page modified March 23, 2014 at 8:16 PM

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No. 1 seed South Carolina beats Cal State Northridge, 73-58 | Women’s NCAA tournament

Seattle Times staff reporter

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It wasn’t swift or easy, but top-seeded South Carolina was enough of an imposing force to finish off a 73-58 win Sunday in its NCAA opener at Alaska Airlines Arena.

“This is March, welcome to the madness,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said after an undersized, yet fearless Cal State Northridge team had the No. 1 seed concerned about an upset until the final minute of the game.

The No. 16 seed Matadors were within single digits several times in the second half, threatening to ruin the Gamecock’s debut as a top seed.

CSUN junior guard Cinnamon Lister made two free throws to make the deficit 64-56 with 1:25 left in the game. The Gamecocks made 11 free throws down the stretch to close out the win.

The Gamecocks (28-4) featured a balanced attack with four players scoring in double figures. Guard Tiffany Mitchell, the Southeastern Conference player of the year, picked her spots to finish with a team-high 24 points. Star freshman post Alaina Coates had 13 points and 16 rebounds off the bench.

“They never went away,” said South Carolina junior forward Aleighsa Welch of CSUN (18-15).

South Carolina’s suffocating defense focused on junior guard Ashlee Guay, the Big West player of the year. Her team worked to get her open looks, but Guay couldn’t connect on her unique one-handed release. She was 0 for 6 from the field before rattling in her shot — a three-pointer — to inch CSUN to 45-39 with 13:47 left in the game.

Junior guard Janae Sharpe’s quick assist to sophomore center Bernadette Fong that slowly rolled into the hoop pulled CSUN within 45-41 with 12:58 left. South Carolina responded with a 13-2 run, capped with a deep jumper by sophomore guard Tina Roy as the shot-clock buzzer sounded.

The bucket created a roar from the smattering of South Carolina fans in attendance. The shot put the Gamecocks up 58-43 with 7:24 left.

Guay banged her head on the court while attempting to grab a rebound against Coates with 4:34 remaining in the game. CSUN rallied, however, closing to 60-54 on a layin by Sharpe.

“They really wouldn’t go away,” Staley said.

The Matadors (18-15) relied on Sharpe, the team’s sixth-leading scorer, for offense. She hit the timely buckets to keep CSUN in the game, finishing with 26 points.

South Carolina will play ninth-seeded Oregon State on Tuesday at Alaska Airlines Arena.

“We’re not going to win any style points for this one,” Staley said. “We did what No. 1 seeds do, and that’s win.”

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