April 3, 2024 

Dawn Staley savoring the moment as South Carolina prepares for another Final Four

Gamecocks are in the Final Four for the fourth straight year

Usually in motion, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley was able to enjoy a nice moment of reflection and stillness during Tuesday’s Final Four coaches’ press conference.

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While quoting popular rapper Drake, the seasoned coach expressed surprise at being one of the four remaining women’s basketball programs in the tournament. South Carolina remains alive, along with North Carolina State, Iowa, and Connecticut. And although this run is the Gamecocks’ fourth consecutive Final Four appearance, Staley still had to pinch herself to ensure this trip was real.

“I’m shocked,” Staley said with a straight face during the Zoom webinar. “I’m shocked. The players came to my room in the hotel – and it’s a big room. It’s lavish. They wanted to see what it looked like. They’re all in there, and I’m like, thank you, thank you, thank you. I said thank you for this big room, but most importantly, for getting us here to the Final Four to experience this. I never want not to show my gratitude for our players and the hard work that they put in, but I’m shocked.”

She may be the only one, especially after South Carolina open the season with three consecutive 100-point games in wins over Notre Dame, Maryland, and Clemson.

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In some ways, this may have been an unexpected treat for unbeaten South Carolina, which arrives in Cleveland in the same position as last season’s stellar squad – undefeated. Last year’s team also featured five players who became WNBA draftees, and included three selected among the top 10. It’s a testament to the culture that Staley has constructed, where excellence is always expected.

The 36-0 Gamecocks entered this season ranked sixth in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll. They have been the nation’s consensus No. 1 team since the second poll of the season on Nov. 13. The following week on Nov. 20, South Carolina received all 36 first-place votes, has continued to ever since. South Carolina has won 72 of its last 73 games, an unfathomable run of consistency and dominance.

Yet, all they’ve done this season is win their games by an average of 29.6 points per game while conquering the Southeastern Conference and the Albany One Regional. They have faced tests along the way, which have toughened the Gamecocks for the challenges awaiting them this weekend. That first challenge will be against the No. 3 seed NC State Wolfpack on Friday at 7 p.m. at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

“I’m shocked that we’re undefeated,” said Staley. “I’m shocked that we’re here at the Final Four competing for a national championship. But I will tell you this: our coaching staff has put in a lot of work. And sometimes when you put the work in, it’s returned in this fashion. It’s caught us off guard, but I’m super happy for our players because they started from the bottom, and now they’re here.”

Coach Dawn Staley cuts down the net as South Carolina celebrates their 2023 SEC Tournament Championship at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C. on March 5. (Photo credit: Gabriella Lewis)

The Gamecocks may have arrived at this year’s ball a year earlier than anticipated in Staley’s eyes, but they are the odds-on favorites to cut the nets late Sunday afternoon. Even though two more wins would make the Gamecocks the 10th school to finish a season undefeated – and the first since UConn did it in 2016 – Staley is only focused on the next game.

South Carolina experienced the heartbreak of losing in the national semifinals as an undefeated program to Iowa last season. So, while Staley did manage to smile during her reflections on this season, she understands there’s still more to accomplish.

Staley expressed her pleasure at the resiliency the Gamecocks displayed last weekend in Albany. Her players made clutch moves in the fourth quarter to hold off surges from both Indiana and Oregon State. She also understands nothing is guaranteed, despite how perfect the regular season has been.

Staley has learned from last year’s experience and has a slightly different mindset this year. She has never, though, lost confidence in her deep and talented team.

“My guard is always up with our team,” said Staley. “And that’s not a bad place to be. That’s not an untrusting place to be; it’s a place where you know you will have to make some adjustments. You know you’re going to have to say the right things to them to get them to understand what we need to do to execute and win. It’s just to keep them and us – I probably let my guard down a little bit last year because I knew what we had. We had a good core group of players who understood each other. They knew each other. They played well together. This team has the same qualities, but they’re still very young and inexperienced.” 

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Last weekend in Albany, every member of the team contributed significantly down the stretch to help the Gamecocks remain perfect. Sophomore Raven Johnson‘s clutch 3-pointer subdued Indiana after the Hoosiers sliced a 22-point second-half deficit to two points late in the game.

Against Oregon State, junior Bree Hall had her 16th double-figure scoring game. Sophomore Ashlyn Watkins grabbed a new NCAA Tournament career-high 14 rebounds and blocked four shots. Freshman Tessa Johnson led the team in scoring for the first time this season, finishing with 15 points. She scored seven of the Gamecock’s points during an 8-0 finishing flourish run.

Dynamic freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, a human ignition switch, continues to dazzle as South Carolina’s floor general. Junior center Kamilla Cardoso, who declared for the WNBA Draft on Monday, is a consistent force everywhere on the court. Senior guard Te-Hina Paopao is a lethal long-distance sniper. The Gamecocks have the pieces to be the last team standing this weekend.

Despite all the pats on the back, South Carolina has remained humble. This is due in large part to its grueling practice sessions against the Gamecocks’ male practice players. In all the hype surrounding the 12.3 million viewers of Iowa’s 94-87 victory over LSU in a national championship game rematch, South Carolina may be slightly under the radar entering this weekend. This suits Staley just fine.

“We haven’t fully drank the Kool-Aid; we’re sipping on it,” Staley said. “[Our male practice players] really ground us. They don’t allow us to get too high with our highs and too low with our lows. We try to maintain to get better every single day, and we rely on our habits. Although you see us being resilient in games and winning basketball games, we’ve been on the struggle bus at times. We lose big leads. We allow people to come back.”

Through it all, the Gamecocks continue to compete with the verve and poise of 10-year WNBA veterans. They show no fear and rarely crack under pressure. A living monument, Staley instills confidence into her team through her words and actions. It may be a stern lecture, a demonstrative command seasoned with a few choice words, or a warm embrace.

Whatever it is, it works for the Gamecocks, who have alternated wins and losses in their three trips to women’s basketball’s grandest stage. South Carolina dropped a heartbreaker to Stanford in 2021, defeated Louisville and Connecticut in 2022 to win its second national championship under Staley, and lost to Iowa last season.

“Nothing frightens them,” Staley said. “Nothing. But I will say that I’m hoping it’s part of our preparation and practice. We try to put them in the worst possible situations and allow them to figure out how to fight to get out of them. If you do enough of them, when it’s time to play, they’re just playing off the habits they created, not the emotions or runs someone may have on us. They stay present in what needs to take place. So, they stay true to that.”

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Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by SI.com, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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