Alaina Coates out for NCAA tournament

PHOTO: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s road to a possible return to the Final Four just got a little more difficult.

Gamecocks forward Alaina Coates will not return to the lineup for the NCAA Tournament because of a right ankle sprain she suffered more than three weeks ago. The 6-foot-4 Coates has missed three of the past five games since first suffering the injury in a 62-60 loss at Missouri on Feb. 19.

South Carolina, the top seed in the Stockton Regional, opens NCAA play Friday against 16th-seeded UNC Asheville (19-14). If the Gamecocks (27-4) advance, they would take on either Arizona State or Michigan State for a spot in the Sweet 16.

Coates was expected to be a major part of whatever success the Gamecocks have in the tournament.

The senior led the Southeastern Conference in rebounding this year, averaging 10.7 boards a game and 12.9 points. Her presence alongside 6-5 A’ja Wilson, the two-time reigning SEC player of the year, gave the Gamecocks perhaps the country’s best low-post tandem.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said Monday night that Coates had not practiced with the team over the weekend and she would test out her ankle as the team prepared to start the NCAAs. Staley announced Coates’ status on Tuesday, but did not comment about the impact her absence will have on the Gamecocks.

A team spokesman said Staley would not discuss Coates until Thursday’s media session prior to the NCAA Tournament.

Coates is one of the major reasons the Gamecocks have won four straight SEC titles and three consecutive league tourney crowns.

She ends her college career as South Carolina’s second leading rebounder (1,230) and second in career double-doubles (57).

The Gamecocks have played well in Coates’ absence, winning all five games since the ankle injury.

“It has been a resilient team,” Staley said during the SEC Tournament.

Coates tweaked her injured ankle twice down the stretch, both times against Kentucky. She returned to action in the final regular-season game on Feb. 26, playing 27 minutes against the Wildcats. But she left the court in pain after crumpling to the floor following a made layup.

Coates played against Kentucky again in the SEC Tournament semifinals for just four minutes before injuring the ankle again and heading into the locker room.

Coates sat out South Carolina’s 59-49 victory over Mississippi State in the SEC title game March 5.

She was named to the all-SEC first team the past two years and was the SEC’s freshman of the year and sixth player of the year in 2014.

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