Staley believes others besides Cardoso deserved penalties in SEC tourney scuffle

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley understands why suspended forward and leading scorer Kamilla Cardoso will miss the women’s NCAA Tournament opener.

She’s not sure, however, why others involved in the conference tournament scuffle weren’t penalized as well.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley talks with her players during a timeout the second half...

The Gamecocks (32-0), the No. 1 overall seed, start tournament play on Friday against No. 16 seed Presbyterian (21-14) minus 6-foot-7 Cardoso, their centerpiece player down low this season.

No. 8 seed North Carolina (19-12) takes on ninth-seeded Michigan State (22-8) to open play.

Cardoso, named a second-team AP All-American, is out after her ejection for shoving LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson to the ground after Johnson pushed Ashlyn Watkins late in the Gamecocks’ 79-72 victory to win the SEC Tournament title on March 10.

Five others from the two teams were sent to the locker room, including three of Cardoso’s teammates, for leaving the bench to join the skirmish, yet only Cardoso is sidelined.

“It does have the appearance of just Kamilla taking the fall for it,” Staley said Thursday. “Did she deserve it? Yes. She deserved to be disqualified. No doubt about it. But there were some other parties that should have been penalized.”

Staley spoke with several leaders about the situation including Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, who sat courtside at the game and stood on the postgame riser for a bittersweet championship trophy ceremony where Cardoso and teammates Chloe Kitts, Tessa Johnson and Sakima Walker were all in the locker room after their ejections.

In Staley’s view, she thinks if administrators assessed the situation again, “they would come up with something different,” she said. “But it leaves Kamilla hanging.”

Kamilla Cardoso - Wikipedia

Immediately, Staley apologized for her team’s actions and Cardoso issued a statement on social media, apologizing and pledging not to let things escalate going forward. Staley even said LSU’s Johnson came up to the coach and apologized, saying she’s not that kind of player.

Staley was just as quick to let her players know that such a dustup can’t happen again. “I don’t let things linger,” she said. “You hit it, and then you move on.”

Cardoso, too, has moved past her actions.

“I’m upset I won’t be out there with my team,” Cardoso said Thursday. “But I feel what’s happened has happened, there’s nothing I can do to change it so now it’s time to move on and just look forward to being out there with my team.”

The bad new for Presbyterian? South Carolina is 4-0 without Cardoso this season. She missed four games in February, the first two while she was competing for her national team Brazil in Olympic qualifying, then two more down the stretch after she returned and dealt with soreness from her overseas trip.

Watkins, a 6-3 sophomore, has taken a spot in the lineup in Cardoso’s absence. Watkins said she’ll do her best against the Blue Hose before Cardoso comes back for the second round.

“I don’t really think it’s going to make a difference,” Watkins said. “Yes, she’s going to miss the game, but I’m going to just have to play.”

Blue Hose coach Alaura Sharp knows the enormous odds her team will face against South Carolina, which is 11-0 under Staley in the NCAA opening round. It didn’t help when Staley talked with the team this week after their arrival.

“Our team was fan-girling, honestly,” Sharp said. “They’ve got to turn that gear off tomorrow when we go out on the court.”

North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart and her Michigan State counterpart, Robyn Fralick, have been friends for a while since Banghart was coaching at Princeton and Fralick was at Division II Ashland University in Ohio in the mid-2000s.

They bonded over shared situations through the years as both tried to elevate programs that did not always have success.

Their friendship continued as both took new jobs, Banghart with the Tar Heels and Fralick at Bowling Green. The two had monthly calls, Fralick said, discussing strategies and hurdles to overcome. Now, they face each other for the first time in the NCAA Tournament.

“We were on the phone last night when I was on the bus,” Banghart said. “It’s like, gosh, a team you root for now you’re playing in the first round.”

Fralick, too, was excited and nervous when the matchup came out Sunday night. The friends chuckled about how none of the bracketologists had the Tar Heels facing the Spartans.

“Normally I would be cheering for you,” Fralick said she told Banghart, “but not this game.”

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