The Dawn of a New Era

Written By Brendan Kapfer

South Carolina has become the new face of Women’s College Basketball. They are the new standard. This is a team that for the past five seasons has established the birth of a dynasty. With two championships in three seasons, it is not a reach to say we are only seeing what this program can accomplish. Dawn Staley has become the best coach in Women’s College Basketball and despite already achieving greatness, she is trying to become the best coach of all time. Something that is certainly possible given how the last five seasons have gone.

Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks won all but one game heading into the NCAA tournament in 2020. Three seasons prior, they had won the national championship and this season they were looking to give coach Staley her second ring. And then Covid-19 happened, canceling the NCAA Tournament. Before the start of the 2020 season though, the Gamecocks had received the best recruiting class in all of college basketball. A title that almost always belongs to UConn, but with Zia Cooke, Aliyah Boston, and Brea Beale all coming to Columbia, the times were about to change.

In 2021, that young class had five losses in the entire season. Not a lot right? Wrong. Since 2018-19, that is the worst record of a South Carolina team. Despite that, the Gamecocks still made it to the Final Four. The young Gamecocks came up short against the Stanford Cardinal who also had quite a talented squad with Cameron Brink and Haley Williams on the roster both of which will/already play in the WNBA. In that loss, junior forward and the best player in college basketball, Aliyah Boston missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer. Boston was emotionally distraught after that loss and as a fan of hers it was upsetting to see, but it was character character-building moment and changed the way this team played in the next season.

This was the year that the young class that started in the 2019-20 season was going to earn their stripes. Zia Cooke, Aliyah Boston, and Brea Beale were all juniors coming into this season which meant their leadership was the driving factor for how far this team would go. All eyes of college basketball were on UConn and Paige Bueckers, but Dawn Staley had other things in mind. In the Final Four Aliyah Boston got her chance at redemption and this time she would not disappoint. She had twenty-three points and eighteen rebounds against Louisville in the Final Four and eleven points and sixteen rebounds against UConn. She won the Wooden Award (MVP) that year as well as the Rookie of the Year award last year in her first season in the WNBA. In addition to those accolades, Boston won the Lisa Leslie award all four years she played for South Carolina which meant she was the best center in the nation for four years straight.

In 2023, after South Carolina put a beating on UConn, winning by four points. I use the word beating because they physically dominated the Huskies who were known to be the bullies of the women’s game. The Gamecocks outrebounded Uconn by twelve boards and were the better team. That did not stop the UConn coach from insinuating that South Carolina played a dirty game by saying “It’s not basketball.” Staley sets a great example for how to treat others as well as her team which makes Auriemma’s comments sound envious and counter-productive to the women’s game.

Dawn Staley responded by saying, her gamecocks, “Play it the right way, they approach it the right way, whether they win, whether they lose, we never denounce anybody’s play, we’re always uplifting the game of women’s basketball. When we were getting our heads beaten in by UConn all those years, I said nothing.” She has shown support for many other teams by talking repeatedly about how great star UConn guard Paige Bueckers is or how phenomenal a talent Caitlin Clark is. She is the first to stand up and celebrate another team’s success without the faintest hint of jealousy.

Take, for example, Dawn Staley deciding to visit Norfolk State’s locker room after South Carolina beat them badly in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. She also paid for the entire team’s dinner following the loss. Staley exemplifies pure class and shows what greatness looks like off and on the floor. For now, eight players are in the WNBA from South Carolina’s program which shows Staley builds these young women into standup adults as well as great basketball players. In the 2022 national championship game, she wore a sweatshirt that read “WBB vs. Everybody” something few coaches would dare to do.

In Zia Cooke, Brea Beale, and Aliyah Boston’s last season of college was a chance to do something only a few teams have ever done in College Basketball. Win two national championships in a row. On their road to March, they defeated LSU who to many was going to be the team to challenge the throne. South Carolina would not see them again but had a chance to be in the semifinals of the season. In the Final Four of 2023, Caitlin Clark torched the Gamecocks for forty-one points and left South Carolina’s best recruiting class ever brokenhearted yet again. Staley was going to have to wait to get her third ring and it looked like it was going to take some time to build this team back to what it had achieved in the previous two seasons.

In the lead-up to this past season, Dawn Staley joked about quitting because she lost all five of her starters, starters who had been with her through thick and thin. Although they were gone, their impact would still have a high effect on how the season would play out. Given how Raven Johnson was looked off in the Final Four, there was one thing on their minds: revenge. Staley once scoffed at the fact that the Gamecocks were ranked as high as six, saying to herself there is a lot left to be done to make this season great.

In the first game of the season, South Carolina played a true contender in Notre Dame. Their star player, Hannah Hidalgo would test South Carolina to how they can nullify a great player and see if they learned their lesson from the previous Final Four. Hidalgo still got thirty-one points but given nobody else scored more than twelve points and South Carolina scored one hundred points it was safe to say a lesson had been learned. How special this team could be was not realized until they beat another contender in Maryland by close to fifty points. It was pure domination from start to finish and a sign of things to come.

Out of twenty-nine regular season games, only four games were won by a single-digit margin, and none were within one possession. This includes a game against the reigning champions, the LSU Tigers who had added more depth to an already stacked team in Haley Van Lith and still got overran in the end by the Gamecocks. Many who thought Kim Mulkey became the top coach in the Women’s game were sadly mistaken and those who forgot about the Gamecocks were reminded. They would be reminded once again later in the season. LSU Game

In the SEC Tournament, South Carolina’s perfect record would be tested. In a game against Tennessee, South Carolina needed more than a miracle to maintain perfection. Kamila Cardoso who had yet to attempt a three on the season, hit a three at the buzzer to advance the Gamecocks to the final of the SEC Tournament. In the SEC Tournament, we got to the Final some felt robbed of last season and it did not disappoint. The game was highly contested, but South Carolina was the better team all the way through. One would think that the story would be about South Carolina’s domination but instead, a heated moment took over all storylines.

The game became very heated late when LSU’s Flaujae Johnson did more than talk and gave Milaysia Fulwiley a shove as she was walking by. Kamila Cardoso then laid into Flau’jae Johnson and leveled the much smaller member of the Tigers. Afterwards, almost every member except for five was ejected from both teams but Dawn Staley after the game apologized to the game of basketball for the fight. In her apology, she said, “Their emotions got so far ahead of them that sometimes these things happen.”

The coverage of this program is something we have been discussing here. The coverage of LSU has been mixed as well with some people being borderline racist towards their team. The coverage certainly is not the same though, because although not all of the harsh criticism is deserved, Kim Mulkey and her Tigers tend to put themselves in positions where it’s easy to criticize. Take for instance after the SEC Championship game, when Mulkey said she wished that Cardoso had leveled Angel Reese (who was not involved because she was nursing an injury) instead of Johnson. This remark poured gasoline on a

fire that Dawn Staley was trying to put out and one that showed what the true character of a champion off the court looks like.

South Carolina breezed past their first two opponents in the NCAA tournament of this season, winning by at least forty points in both games. In the Sweet Sixteen, they ran into some trouble as they played a tight game that did not need to be as tight as it was against Indiana. Staley refused to call a timeout against Indiana, pushing her players to the storm themselves without the comfort of a safety net. The game was so tight because of how well Indiana shot the three balls but South Carolina would end up persevering thanks to some strong physical play in the paint. South Carolina won the game by four points.

In their Elite Eight and Final Four games, they showed a lesson was learned. Against two great shooting teams, South Carolina won by margins of twelve points against Oregon State, and nineteen against NC State. In their game against NC State, star center, Kamila Cardoso did not play in the fourth quarter as she got injured which was concerning at the time because South Carolina was down one at the half. In the third quarter, NC State scored just six points total. South Carolina was gearing up for their shot at redemption against Iowa and on the biggest stage, the team who themselves would say were inexperienced were one game away from perfection.

If you ask me, it does not take much to destroy somebody’s confidence. One of South Carolina’s best shooters hit three threes in last year’s Final Four but as she lined up to take an open three, she was waved off by none other than Caitlin Clark. She would end up missing the three and her confidence was shot. It was clear in Sunday’s game that the gesture affected her as she would only make one field goal. Just like Aliyah Boston, Raven Johnson’s revenge tour was completed. It affected her positively though, on the other end of the floor.

In the first quarter of Sunday’s matinee, Caitlin Clark would score eighteen points. Johnson begged Staley to put her on Clark, but Staley wanted her Gamecocks to weather the storm. In the second quarter, with Johnson guarding the best scorer in Women’s College Basketball history, Clark scored just three points. She was held to twelve points total for the rest of the game. The game was completely controlled by South Carolina in the second half as they would win by twelve points. This is thanks to an all-around great team performance.

The national championship saw Kamila Cardoso score fifteen points and attain seventeen rebounds on a hurt ankle, sophomore Chloe Kitts get a double-double, and freshman Tessa Johnson score nineteen points. Every single player on this team stepped

up and whether it was on the defensive or offensive end, each player played a crucial role in South Carolina earning their third title.

Dawn Staley built this team from scratch this season and showed the power of what a collective unit full of chemistry can do. No other season in my memory had this many great teams as there were in my estimation, twelve teams who had a reasonable argument to say they could win the tournament. From LSU to Stanford to UConn to Iowa, the team that returned no starters as opposed to some of the super teams that were formed was the one that won it all.

With all due respect, I cannot remember a time when Geno Auriemma or Pat Summit won a championship with this much competition, let alone two in three years. Staley’s Gamecocks beat the greatest scorer to grace the women’s game to win a title and for the moment, the greatest coach of all time to win her second title in 2022. This team fought through so much adversity over the past two years, living in the shadows compared to coverage of other teams but you would never hear them complain. You would never hear Staley complain about any other team, rather she would uplift other teams and coaches.

After she won her first national championship, she sent pieces of the net to other black coaches in Women’s College Basketball to let them know that they too could cut down the nets in the month of March. She has not only built this team up in a season but has built this game up to something even misogynists will pay attention to. Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese also played huge roles in garnering the national attention women’s college basketball has received but most importantly has supported all things women’s basketball from the moment she joined South Carolina.

This is the dawn of a new age in Women’s College Basketball. One that will see many teams with a chance to sit on the throne. A time in which new faces will become household names to young girls across the nation as so many male college athletes have become. An era that will see every team try to defeat the team that holds the throne for the moment. And an age that will see us answer a question rapper J. Cole asked, “When you make a list of the greatest (are they) on it?” And as he said, “Maybe not yet but (he’s) got the clock set.” https://www.saturdaydownsouth.com/south-carolina-football/dawn-staley-responds-to-geno-auriemmas-comment-that-south-carolina-plays-too-physical/ https://genius.com/J-cole-rise-and-shine-lyrics