COLUMBIA - South Carolina will be allowed to host NCAA tournament games for women's basketball next year without the Legislature removing the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds.

The NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, has enforced a moratorium on "pre-determined sites" in South Carolina since 2001, because of the flag. The moratorium is backed by the state NAACP and its economic boycott of South Carolina.

Through the years, the moratorium has cost the state the chance to host NCAA tournament basketball games, routinely held in cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh but not in Columbia's 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena. A South Carolina city hasn't hosted an NCAA basketball regional since Greenville did in 2002.

The women's basketball tournament will switch to a merits-based format next year. The top 16 seeds will host the tournament's first and second rounds. Under the same format, South Carolina's baseball team has been allowed to host NCAA regional games.

"I wish it was this year, but I fully expect coach (Dawn) Staley to be in this position next year," South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner told The Post and Courier on Wednesday. "I like the idea. I think it will also be great for women's basketball."

The USC women's team, currently ranked No. 4 nationally, would prefer to benefit from the rule change this season.

South Carolina is in the running for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it could travel as far as Seattle for its opening games. Tanner admitted he was less than thrilled when he saw the possibility of playing games across the country.

The format change wasn't greeted with joy everywhere.

South Carolina NAACP President Lonnie Randolph Jr. told the USC student newspaper he was disappointed with the NCAA's decision.

"The decision is a Band-Aid to justice," Randolph told the Daily Gamecock. "Life should be about equality and fairness - not about economics. The NCAA has a responsibility to promote fairness. I do not like how it changed for the women's team because of the money issue."

Two local NAACP officials - Dot Scott and the Rev. Joseph Darby - declined comment.

Staley would like to play postseason games inside her team's home arena, but she was prepared for the inevitability this season.

"We knew coming into the season we weren't going to be a host site," Staley said after Wednesday's practice. "Fortunately for us, the legislation is changing. If we do our jobs next year and put ourselves in a position to be a top 16 team, we will host. So we're looking forward to what the future holds.

"I would've liked to host first- and second-round games because of what our fans have been able to do this year in packing Colonial Life Arena. I think they deserve to see this team play as long as possible. If we could elongate this season by hosting first and second round, that would be terrific. But that's not what our reality is."