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South Carolina is unbeaten, maybe underrated heading into women’s Final Four seeking title

Bree Hall South Carolina Gamecocks Bree Hall - Getty Images

CLEVELAND (AP) — South Carolina has no losses, and maybe not enough love.

While two sublime star players are soaking up much of the spotlight at this year’s women’s Final Four, the undefeated, unafraid and unabashedly true-to-themselves Gamecocks seem to be getting overlooked.

They were No. 1 in the AP Top 25 the past four months, yet are getting second billing this weekend.

But as her so-far perfect team prepared to play No. 3 seed North Carolina State in Friday’s first national semifinal — an undercard of sorts to the Iowa vs. UConn/Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers main event — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley wasn’t complaining about any lack of national respect or coverage.

She’s fought those fights.

Staley, the AP Coach of the Year appearing in her fourth straight Final Four, was singularly focused.

“I want to win,” she said.

That’s all the Gamecocks (36-0) have done this season, steamrolling through the Southeastern Conference with little trouble and winning games by an average 29.6 points. One of their wins was by 82, another by 70.

There’s barely been a scare except for the March 9 conference tourney game against Tennessee, when All-America center Kamilla Cardoso banked in the only 3-pointer of her career at the buzzer for a 74-73 win.

Otherwise, South Carolina, which won the national title in 2022 and has steadily matured into one of college basketball’s best programs over the past decade under Staley, has dominated like few other teams in recent memory.

“This is the best team she’s had,” said N.C. State coach Wes Moore, who joked about interviewing for the South Carolina job at the same time as Staley. “We all know she’s an unbelievable coach, and she’s had great players.

“They’re loaded.”

To the hilt. The Gamecocks are not only blessed with elite talent but extreme depth. South Carolina has gotten 38.8 points per game from its bench in the NCAA Tournament, allowing Staley to keep lineups fresh, stick with the hot hand and navigate foul trouble.

But while fans and college hoop heads aren’t surprised by the performance of a school that went 36-1 a year ago (South Carolina lost to Iowa in the semifinals), has won 107 of its last 110 games and is riding a 60-game home winning streak, Staley didn’t think this squad had Final Four potential.

“I’m shocked,” she said.

She knew replacing all five starters from a stacked 2023 team would be a challenge, and Staley expected there would be struggles as she pieced things together. What she didn’t anticipate was that her joke-cracking, free-willed young team would be so immature.

“I’ll say from the previous years we had a lot of older players, they were fun, too,” junior guard Bree Hall said. “But this team is like a different level of childishness. It’s ridiculous.”

Staley detected early signs of trouble. Her players were not conditioned, lacked focus and weren’t living up the high standards she and previous teams set at South Carolina.

“Some of them would miss breakfast,” she said. “Some of them would miss meetings. Some of them just didn’t respond to text messages. Like, why do they do that?”

But rather than pushing back, which was her first inclination, Staley gave some ground. She decided not to let the little things — a player not wearing the proper sweatpants — bother her and leaned on her upperclassmen to keep Carolina’s kiddies under control.

“She just kind of loosened up,” said Hall, one of the holdovers from the ’22 title team. “She just realizes there’s some things you can’t take care of when it comes to us, and there’s some things you just have to let go because it is who we are.

“She just kind of goes with the flow.”

It’s a new feeling for Staley, who has learned to enjoy a team now two wins from history. Only nine teams have ever gone undefeated.

“I’m riding the wave,” Staley said, “and I’m trying not to get in the way.”

Saniya Rivers has spent the past two days catching up with old friends and new enemies — Staley and the Gamecocks.

N.C. State’s starting point guard won a national title as a freshman with South Carolina two years ago before transferring. And while she didn’t want to go into detail about her decision, Rivers remains loyal to Staley.

They’ve stayed in touch, reaching out via text on birthdays and after big wins.

“She’s the type of person you want to have in your corner for future opportunities even if she can’t be your coach or I can’t be her player,” Rivers said. “We saw each other yesterday, hugged it out.”

Rivers cut down the nets in 2022 wearing a South Carolina jersey, and would like to do it again wearing N.C. State’s colours.

“I would love to have two rings on my hand,” she said. “That would be really nice. My mom keeps it in the case. She wants me to get another one. I might have to bring them both out if that happens -- when it happens.”