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Staley has Gamecocks back on top of women’s college basketball

South Carolina Dawn Staley - Getty Images

For a program that’s set a standard for winning, Dawn Staley and South Carolina have a great deal of unfinished business this March.

The Gamecocks capped a 29-0 regular season with a 76-68 win over SEC rival Tennessee on Sunday. But sure things don’t exist in women’s college basketball these days, and Staley doesn’t have to look far for proof.

South Carolina had an identical regular-season record last year, then swept the SEC Tournament and cruised to the Final Four – 36 consecutive wins in all – before getting acquainted with Caitlin Clark and Iowa in Dallas. Clark’s record-breaking run to the final spared no one, including the Gamecocks, and her 41-point masterpiece left Staley and three-time All-American Aliyah Boston two wins short of a second straight national championship.

A dynasty put on pause.

This year’s South Carolina team looks drastically different than the one that came up short last March. Boston went first overall in the 2023 WNBA draft to the Indiana Fever, and four of the remaining 35 picks were also Gamecocks, including Canadian Laeticia Amihere, who went eighth overall to the Atlanta Dream.

The ensuing youth movement has left the Gamecocks no less a contender. South Carolina was ranked sixth in the preseason, but after opening the season with a win over Notre Dame in Paris and returning home to beat Maryland, Staley’s team found itself atop the AP Poll – a spot it didn’t relinquish all season.

“I am super proud of them,” Staley said following the win over Tennessee. “If you compare the undefeated season from last year to this year, it’s so much different, yet we ended up in the same place…I’m just super proud of this young group.”

Staley admitted in February that she considered retiring last summer over concerns about leadership, conditioning and discipline within the program, but was encouraged by the approach from returning players, including senior Kamilla Cardoso, who averaged 14.1 points and 10.0 rebounds and is projected to be a first round pick in this April’s WNBA draft. The Gamecocks also added transfer senior Te-Hina Paopao, an All-Pac-12 first teamer at Oregon in 2023, who did her part to plug the gap left by outgoing guards Zia Cooke and Brea Beal.

But it was youth, and the significant steps forward from South Carolina’s new wave of players, that had an enormous impact on the Gamecocks’ ascent back to the top of women’s college basketball.

It was not a rebuild but a “retool,” claimed Staley.

Redshirt sophomore Raven Johnson emerged as one of the NCAA’s most complete guards, and fellow second-year player Ashlyn Watkins doubled her minutes, and in turn, her production, averaging 10.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks – asserting herself as one of the strongest interior presences in the SEC.

Then there’s electrifying freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, who scored in double figures in each of her first five college games and finished second on South Carolina in scoring (11.6 points per game), despite averaging just 19.0 minutes. Fulwiley, a homegrown, five-star prospect, has emerged as a human highlight film, despite weathering a late-November benching from Staley – the result of too many defensive breakdowns.

All part of the growing pains that come with a young team. 

Staley has had to adjust to South Carolina’s new culture, and she’s willing to tolerate it, as long as the wins keep rolling in. 

“Our locker room sounds like a daycare,” she joked. “There’s so much talking about nothing. At the beginning of the season, we’d just say ‘Be quiet.’ Now it’s really who they are, it’s their identity. We don’t fight that battle…we put our earplugs in and keep moving.”

“What this team has done is [create] some good habits,” Staley added. “Everyone feels comfortable wherever they enter the game, and everyone feels comfortable having to sit on the bench and wait their turn. We’ve done a really good job communicating with them, and they can take in the information in a way that’s not dampening their confidence.”

Confidence is a hallmark at South Carolina, and goes hand-in-hand with winning, which the Gamecocks have managed to do in 71 of their past 72 games. But Staley’s not focused on 29-0, or anything that happened between training camp and the end of the regular season.

On Friday, South Carolina takes aim at its second straight SEC championship, beginning with a quarter-final meeting against the winner of Mississippi State and Texas A&M, a pair of teams it beat by a combined 54 points in two games back in January.

“I don’t feel like we’re a lock to win every basketball game,” Staley admitted. “They’re still a very young group, [and] postseason is a lot different than regular season…I’m anxious to see how they operate in the SEC Tournament space.”

There’s that, and the bigger tournament – the one that really matters. Staley and her players – old and new – know another NCAA title will be what defines this season.

“Everyone is on the same page, which is ‘job is not done yet’,” Fulwiley said. “After every win, we’re ready for the next one. We’re locked in, knowing we’ve got to stay poised, stay doing what we’re doing, stay disciplined.

“I feel like everything will turn out good for us.”