**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe**
STOCKTON, Calif. — The South Carolina women's basketball team has the greatest fans in the country, filling Colonial Life Arena game after game and leading the nation in average attendance the past two seasons.
They will be missed this weekend when the Gamecocks play in the Stockton Region in the Sweet 16. South Carolina plays Quinnipiac at 1 p.m. ET.
The women's team has more than 10,000 season ticket holders and drew more than 8,000 fans for their home games in the first and second round of the tournament, despite the men's team playing just 90 minutes away in Greenville on the same weekend.
The Gamecocks have made the Sweet 16 four straight years, and have had to play either on the West Coast or far away from home in three of those seasons, traveling to Palo Alto, Calif. in 2014, Sioux Falls, S.D. last year and now Stockton. Head coach Dawn Staley has made no secret of being unhappy with being sent out west again.
But she knows Gamecock fans will be with her team in heart and spirit this weekend.
"It's hard on our fans because they have been there. They have supported (us) at home," Staley said. "They do travel. We'll have some fans that will be here, but it wouldn't be anything like if it was a little bit closer to where we are. And you know, for them, I feel for them because it's a hardship. Monetarily, it's hard for them to get out here and support us in the way that they would like to support us.
"But at the same time, they will have watch parties and they will send their support and they will be here in spirit."
All-American forward A'Ja Wilson knows all about that fan support. Her pastor, Rev. Dr. Jamey O. Graham at St. John Baptist Church, dismisses services early just so he can attend Wilson's games.
"Our fans are really loyal and it is tough being out west and not all of them not being there," she said. "We just have to just go out here and just pretend that they are there.
"I think that we have enough heart and enough talent that we can take care of business. But it is tough kind of not having your fans out here. But I feel like they are here in spirit. We get the text messages, we get the Tweets, we get the Instagram posts. So we know they are there, just maybe not physically."
Staley says the program's fans are "second to none."
"What our fans have created for us in our program, they make our team and our program a lifestyle," she said. "I've never seen anything unfold like this in all of my years of being around basketball."