SAN ANTONIO — There are times where Dawn Staley sees it. She’ll talk about it if asked, but she’s not going to bring it up to her team, especially not now.
“They are super-competitive, much more competitive than the 2017 team,” South Carolina’s coach said of her current Final Four team. “Day to day, they get after it, then once they leave the facility, they’re super-nice again. Losing is not in their DNA.”
Her Gamecocks are back in the Final Four for the first time since they won the 2017 national championship, and on a similar path. Once again, they face Stanford in the Final Four to get to the title game. Once again, they could have to play a Connecticut team that beat them in the regular season should they get past Stanford.
Once again, Staley’s team is loaded with talent, with a key player injured – in 2017 it was Alaina Coates, this year it’s Lele Grissett. This team doesn’t have the veteran presence of that one, but it does have a squad that played together for a full year before this year, unlike that one.
Transfers Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray joined the starting lineup that year after sitting out the previous season due to NCAA rules, and while they had practiced with USC in 2015-16, it isn’t nearly the same as playing. Bianca Cuevas-Moore started the season as point guard, lost her job to freshman Ty Harris but was back in the lineup for the postseason when Coates was injured.
That team had a budding National Player of the Year in the paint with 6-5 A’ja Wilson, this team has the same with 6-5 Aliyah Boston. That team was dealing with a tremendously disappointing ending the season before, a stunning Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse. This team didn’t get to finish what looked to be a championship season in 2020 due to COVID-19.
What’s triggered this team’s success is like that one, and many others under Staley – individual stars in high school have had to check their accomplishments to be woven into a Gamecocks team.
“It’s always an adjustment at first, but coach was saying the other day, all of us could have went to a different school and have 30 attempts a game, but for us all to come together and play as a team together, it’s awesome,” guard Zia Cooke said. “To have a group of all-stars come together and play together, I feel like it’s showing for us right now the way that we’re playing as a team.”
Cooke is used to handling the ball, setting up around the perimeter and driving to the basket. It’s what she did in her native Toledo where she became a McDonald’s All-American.
She does that at USC, sometimes. But she’s also passing the ball to Boston as the Gamecocks’ offense runs inside-out and doesn’t center around a scoring guard.
Same for Brea Beal, who won three Ms. Basketball awards in her native Illinois but averages less than eight points per game at USC.
“Through those sacrificial times is when your confidence can tilt the wrong way, because you’re not performing the way you think in your mind the way you need to perform,” Staley said. “Once we lost to Texas A&M in the regular season, this team took on a different personality. This team just gave it up. They peeled away all the layers, and they just came together as one.”
Playing Stanford in the Final Four, Staley remembered the 2017 matchup. A decent start had turned into an aching second quarter, one where the Gamecocks just weren’t handling things well and needed to get to the locker room so they could adjust. They trailed 29-20.
“I asked a serious question, ‘Why can’t you all execute what we want to execute?’” Staley remembered. “I think it was Kaela Davis, raised her hand, and said, ‘Because we’re millenials?’”
The room-wide laugh eased the tension, USC returned to the court and won 62-53, taking the national title two nights later.
This team has that kind of looseness. It also knows how to focus on work when it’s time to win a championship.
Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.