April 1, 2022 

2022 Final Four Preview: Gamecocks ready to move past last season’s Final Four

Dawn Staley: 'We’re just going to play the game.'

It’s been a pressure-packed season for the Gamecocks.

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They’ve been the No. 1 team in the country all season long.

They’ve managed rising expectations by taking the best shot of their opponents night in and night out – and winning – compiling an impressive 33-2 record.

They’ve endured one of the toughest schedules in the entire country, including five matchups against top-10 opponents this season – three against a top-five opponent.

They’ve responded by leading the nation with 12 wins over ranked opponents this season.

And that pressure, those expectations, that tough schedule – its been worth it says head coach Dawn Staley. It has them playing tonight in their fourth Final Four in the last seven NCAA Tournaments – the second-most appearances of any program in that time span.

“I mean, we’ve played with this pressure for the past — actually for all of their — the juniors, for all of their career here at South Carolina,” Staley said during Final Four media availability this week. “You know that you’re going to get everybody’s best effort at different times, at different times in the game. We just settle in, knowing that it’s going to happen.”

“Especially at the beginning of basketball games where you’re super hyped to play us and to beat us, but we’ve got a poised group. We’ve got a really focused core group of players who they just want to win,” Staley said. “They’re smart. They know what’s coming and so they brace for it.”

And that tough schedule? It absolutely prepared them for tonight’s matchup against Louisville said Staley, who this week was named the Naismith Coach of the Year for the second time in the last three seasons.

“I thought our schedule did a great job at giving us a variety of styles of play, some we saw in the NCAA Tournament, so we were very much prepared to play it. I’ve got to credit to our conference, as well,” she said. “The SEC from top to bottom challenged us every time that we stepped on the floor, so if you play in the SEC, it prepares you to compete for national championships. We’re sitting here because of that.”

Tonight’s game against No. 1 seed Louisville is the Gamecocks’ sixth against a top-10 opponent and fourth against a top-five foe. They made it to another Final Four on the strength of stellar defense – third in the nation yielding 50.5 points per game during the regular season – and during the NCAA Tournament, opponents have averaged just. 41.2 points.

When asked about the team’s offense – after they shot 51 percent from the field and had seven turnovers in their 80-50 victory over Creighton to make it to the Final Four – Staley said there are no expectations: “We’re just going to play the game.”

“I think a lot of people have questioned our offense throughout the tournament, and it just seems to be our team that’s been targeted about what our offense is doing, and no other team has been targeted in the way that our team has,” she said.

“We’re playing good basketball. Whether our shooting percentage is in the 30s or in the 50s, I don’t think we’re taking bad shots. So if we’re taking bad shots, then we have issues. We’re just taking good shots that aren’t going in. At some point those shots will go in.”

“But I hope that we do what we need to do to win basketball games and just be able to survive and advance to Sunday.”

Joining Staley during this week’s Final Four Media availability were players Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Victaria Saxton who talked about a myriad of topics including tonight’s game, the Gamecocks’ fan base, teammate chemistry and what, if any, pressure, they have felt along the journey since arriving on campus.

“I don’t really think it was any pressure. I think my freshman year wasn’t so much pressure because Ty [Harris] and Kiki [Herbert-Harrigan] did such a good job of putting us in our roles,” said Cooke. “We knew what our roles were, we didn’t get outside of that, and they taught us exactly what we needed to do.”

“Sophomore year, it could have been just a little pressure just knowing that we don’t have them anymore so now we have to step up to the plate and know what to do out there with the team. This year, I don’t feel any pressure at all. I think we’re pretty comfortable with what we have to do, and we’ve been doing a pretty good job at it.”

Beal, whose versatility in rebounding, scoring and assisting has been on full display during the tournament, said she tries to maintain a balance in all things basketball.

“I think a lot of the time — I know for me personally, I don’t tend to try to feel pressure or put pressure on myself because that’s when the boat gets a little rocky. I like to stay in the middle, not too high, not too low. So I think we’re really in a good place.”

They’re definitely in a good place, considering how last year’s Final Four appearance ended. In a back-and-forth battle with Stanford all game, the Gamecocks were mere seconds from playing for their second national championship.

But a jump shot by Stanford with 32 seconds remaining in the game put the Cardinals up by one point. What followed was a missed layup by Beal then a missed putback attempt by Aliyah Boston before the clock expired and the Gamecocks fell 66-65 in a heartbreaker.

It’s a moment they all remember but it’s also a moment that Staley has chosen not to dwell on.

“For me, last year is in the past. I think what anyone does is you compartmentalize it. It is there as part of your journey. So good, bad, or indifferent, it’s a part of who we are. Like it was supposed to happen,” she said. “Our paths are divinely ordered, so we’ve got to take the good and the bad and the disappointments just like we take the celebratory experiences. No, I don’t think about it. The only time I think about it is when it’s brought up.”

“But we’re not really motivated by that. We’re motivated by what we’ve been able to do this year and the habits that we’ve been able to create and perform night in and night out, and we just hope that our habits are much stronger than our opponents’ on any given day.”

In addition to Boston, the Gamecocks boast a well-rounded roster including Beal, Cooke, Saxton, Destanni Henderson and Laeticia Amihere, who Staley says is one of her most versatile players. Her presence is especially valuable going into tonight’s game.

“I mean, it’s a real luxury to have LA because she can do so many things. I really don’t think she’s actually scratched the surface as to the player that she’s going to become. I think probably the college game — the court is probably a little bit too small for her,” Staley said. “There’s a lot of zone being played, a lot of sagging, so you don’t really get the feel for what she can really do. There are spurts where she just looks incredible. Like I truly believe in her.”

“I believed in her after her first ACL [injury]. I believed in her after her second ACL. Because I know she is not only incredibly smart, she’s got a gift and she’s got a curse. She’s super stubborn. Stubborn has got her through two ACLs, and I’d rather have them wired that way than where you’ve got to motivate. You don’t have to motivate her. She comes to practice and games ready to rock and roll. She’s that aggressive player that you always need somebody like that in your locker room.”

Teammate Saxton said she loves playing with Amihere. “Just knowing she can handle the ball outside the paint or inside the paint, it’s exciting. I love watching it. I enjoy it. I’m ready to see her dunk, of course, in a game like everybody else, so we’re looking forward to that coming,” Saxton said.

Henderson, who is affectionately known as “Henny” by all, is calm and cool, Staley says. “I like her demeanor, I like her speed, I like her ability to score the basketball. I like the fact that she’s the ultimate teammate. She’s not stats driven. She’s one that gives us what we need at any given time.”

When asked if she could lock her down one-on-one, Staley playfully answers: “So I could say yes, but we’ll never know, right? No, I’m not locking anybody down. The only thing I can do is live through her, her ability to play fast, to shoot the ball, to single-handedly apply pressure to our opposing point guards.”

“She’s a lot quicker than I could ever be, and she probably shoots a lot more than I’ve ever shot. But our demeanors are probably very similar in that we’re poised. We’re poised during times in which you can get your nerves out of whack.”

Henny’s teammates call the player an example of trusting the process.

“I wasn’t here her freshman year, but I’ve seen how she’s overcome everything she’s been through and is coming out on top with it,” said Cooke. “She’s just a great teammate. She’s definitely always pushing me to be better. Even in the weight room, she always wants me to stay after with her. So definitely she’s a great teammate, and I’m super comfortable when I’m on the floor with her.”

Staley and the players also discussed the Gamecocks growing fandom which has the team leading the nation in game attendance each year and how they’ve been able to captivate the Carolina community.

“I mean, it’s about building relationships, and what we’ve done a long time ago was just mom-and-pop, actually. We took matters into our own hands. We invited our fans into our offices. We create opportunities for them to get to know us as people, and then in return, word of mouth, they bring friends,” Staley said.

“They buy season tickets just to have, just to invite people to our games. And once you come into our environment, it looks like no other. It looks like no other sporting event on our campus, and that’s a mixture of all kinds of races and ethnicities, and I know a lot of friendships have been forged because of the environment that we create within our arena. It is access. We give our fans access to us, and in return, they fill our arena.”

They can feel the love in the community, Beal said, and the atmosphere is like a family.

“You can go to the store and run into somebody and they’re like, ‘oh, my gosh,’ just freaking out. It’s like a family. That’s the most important thing. You’re playing in front of people that support you 100 percent, and it’s about the engagement after games, waving to them, getting to know them.”

As they prepare for tonight’s Final Four, the players reflected on their experience from a year ago when – due to the pandemic – they played in a bubble and how things are different.

“I just want to start with just being able to get the full experience this time. I think last year being in the bubble, we didn’t actually get the experience, just to even have a press conference like this,” Cooke said. “When we first got here, we had a lot of love from everyone. So it’s definitely been a Final Four experience, and I’m super excited about that part of it.”

Saxton agreed: “I would definitely have to say that this year has been a very different experience from last year considering we were in the bubble and not getting to experience the things that we’re seeing this year. So I think that’s a big difference, and I like it.”

“Yeah, I think they both got it,” Beal added. “It’s kind of — you had basketball, but you’ve got to balance it with the experience, as well. You’ve got to be able to feel the love and feel what a true Final Four and what the true tournament feels like.”

They will experience a true Final Four this evening – en route to what they hope will be a chance to play for that coveted national championship.

Written by Dorothy J. Gentry

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