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There was a Final Four berth, an SEC tournament crown, an .839 winning percentage — all hallmarks of another successful season for South Carolina women’s basketball. Naturally, coach Dawn Staley told reporters on Tuesday that she is “super proud” of what the Gamecocks accomplished in 2020-21.
But she also acknowledged that as her program has become a national powerhouse — regularly advancing deep in the NCAA tournament, ranking near the top of the polls and pulling in some of the best recruiting classes in the country — the baseline for a successful season has changed, both among outside observers and internally from players and coaches.
“This team came in this season with high expectations, some from other sources, but mainly from within,” Staley said. “This team wanted to win the national championship, this team came in with that and the weight of that on their shoulders. And throughout the season we had some adverse moments, and through that adversity, we got better, almost to the tune of people almost forgetting about us a little bit. And I thought that was needed, just to kind of take the weight off of our shoulders and for us to just get better and just kind of buckle down and find a way to fight through.
“And that is, for me, the true mark of a champion. We may not be the national champions, but we championed adversity in a way that could have gone either way. We could have tanked, but we found enough fight in us to string some wins together at the end, with an SEC tournament championship, with four games in the NCAA tournament, put us in the Final Four, we lose on a last-second putback. It doesn’t get any closer than that.
“But with all of that, we left one goal out there on the table that we will fight like tooth and nail to get back and get next next season.”
Having been ranked in every Associated Press Top 25 since December 2012 and in the Top 10 for the entirety of the past two seasons, South Carolina has entered rarefied air that the program is expected to maintain for the foreseeable future with another blockbuster freshman class set to arrive this summer. Only a few premier programs, perhaps just UConn and Baylor, are at the point where the Gamecocks now are — where Final Four berths and conference titles are good, but they’re more expected than hoped for.
“I have no doubt this (2021-22) team is going to be successful. How successful, I don’t know. But for us, just like for some of you (reporters), because I see some of your writings, and for our (fans), anything less than a national championship is failure,” Staley said. “That’s our expectation now, is to win a national championship, and those are our goals. So when we don’t accomplish it, we feel bad and and we hurt just as much as everybody else.”
Those lofty expectations were very much placed on this past year’s team after the Gamecocks went 32-1 and ranked No. 1 in the 2019-20 season, only for the COVID-19 pandemic to cancel the NCAA tournament. And as Staley noted, they sometimes weighed heavily on a squad that hadn’t actually made it to Final Four, much less the national championship, since 2017.
Since that last time on the sport’s biggest stage, the entire roster had turned over, and those moments in the most pressure-filled games imaginable is something they needed to go through this year.
“I think it’s great just to experience being in the Final Four,” Staley said. “Everyone on our team this year hadn’t experienced a Final Four. So to have experienced it, to gain that experience, to know what it takes to compete and get there — that’s going to be enough to fuel us to want to get back and to win. ... If I told our players, the margin of error will be a putback or a transition layup, they wouldn’t have believed. They wouldn’t have believed it’s that small.”
Now moving forward, Staley wants her players to confront what she called the “pink elephant in the room” — the pressure to be that successful on a consistent basis. To pretend it’s not there, she said, will only make things worse.
And that starts with the incoming freshman class, a collection of four McDonald’s All-Americans, all ranked in the top 15 nationally by ESPN. All four are star players in their respective high school areas, and star players are used to getting lots of minutes, points and attention. Once they get to USC, though, they’ll likely have to give most of that up in service of the ultimate goal.
“They all knew what they were signing up for,” Staley said. “Meaning, they knew we were talented, they knew we were on the brink of winning a national championship. That’s what they signed up for.”