South Carolina’s Final Four run continues, but this one feels different

ALBANY, N.Y. — Dawn Staley began her familiar ascent up the ladder positioned under the basket nearest to South Carolina’s bench 30 minutes after the final buzzer sounded. She had hugged her assistant coaches in the waning moments of the Gamecocks’ 70-58 win over Oregon State, then embarked on a celebration of a fourth consecutive Final Four. As she climbed, left foot, then right, she fist-pumped, danced, posed for pictures and eventually put a snipped net around her neck. Before touching back on the ground, she joked to the crowd around her, “Turn the cameras off before I fall.”

Of course, she didn’t stumble Sunday. Nor did her team. Not against the Beavers. And not against any of the 35 opponents the Gamecocks had faced before the Elite Eight. But just because South Carolina remains undefeated doesn’t mean its victory was assumed. For those at its center, this year is different. In many ways, it’s all new.

As Staley instructed, Sania Feigan held the Albany 1 Regional championship trophy as the Gamecocks posed for their team picture. “It was amazing to pick it up and know what it feels like,” Feigan said. Through her first two seasons, the junior forward averaged less than eight minutes a game. Though still a role player, she is now a key contributor averaging 15 minutes a game off South Carolina’s bench — the best reserves among tournament teams with 33.8 points per game.

Freshman star MiLaysia Fulwiley was the first South Carolina player up the ladder. Freshman guard Tessa Johnson, who scored a team-high 15 points, followed. When it was first-year Gamecocks assistant coach Winston Gandy’s turn to collect his piece of twine, fellow assistant Khadijah Sessions yelled out, “Yeah, Winston. He’s a winner now.”

They all were; some crowned for the first time.

“I want their experience to be as special as the very first time that we’ve been able to cut down the nets to go to our first Final Four,” Staley said. She’s now heading to her sixth as a coach.

Staley, of course, didn’t think that last year’s Final Four run would be her program’s final shot. Still, she said the loss to Iowa in the national semifinal shook her. “It rocked me because we had a team full of players who did all the right things,” she said. “All the right things. Gave us no issues for four years.”

That group was led by its seniors — namely Aliyah Boston, Laeticia Amihere, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, who finished their careers 129-9 and each got selected in last year’s WNBA Draft. Staley, who won the national title in 2022, reflected that last season’s seniors carried a heavy load trying to repeat. The Gamecocks’ victory over the Beavers won’t make those former players feel any better about the legacy they left, of course. “But I know they’re happy-proud of this group, and they’re happy-proud of South Carolina,” she said. They’re also not strangers.

Bree Hall, a junior guard who started her first game this season, said she received advice from Boston the morning of the Elite Eight. The former Naismith Player of the Year told Hall to pray and encouraged Hall to not get flustered and to penetrate if her shot wasn’t falling. Hall said she was antsy during South Carolina’s Sweet 16 win over Indiana. Against Oregon State, she said, she felt calmer.

There were tense moments nevertheless. South Carolina led by only 4 points at halftime. And despite stretching its lead to 14 points with 1:43 to play in the third quarter, Oregon State had closed the gap to 4 with only 3:55 remaining. Still, the Gamecocks never crumbled. They’ve been prepared not to.

South Carolina ranked sixth No. 6 in the preseason AP poll. And at halftime of its first game against Notre Dame, players had an epiphany in the locker room. Leading Notre Dame 49-32, “We looked at each other and were like, we can really do something with this team,” said senior guard Te-Hina Paopao, who was playing in the WNIT with Oregon a year ago.

But the path to Cleveland involved overcoming stellar individual performances by opponents (such as Utah’s Alissa Pili scoring 37 points on Dec. 10) and miracle heroics (senior Kamilla Cardoso making her first-career 3-pointer to prevail over Tennessee in the SEC semifinal). In the locker room after South Carolina’s conference title game, Staley reminded players about the upcoming practice week.


South Carolina star Kamilla Cardoso’s 4,000-mile journey to the top

During the second workout back, she got on them for being lackadaisical. For parts of two sessions, there had been sloppy passes and box-outs. Lots of laughter and not enough focus. Staley made them run. A lot. Baseline to baseline. “It was like a racetrack in there,” redshirt sophomore guard Raven Johnson said. “We needed that because it’s preparing us for these games.”

Added Staley earlier this week: “They probably thought I was a little tight. It’s not that I was tight, it was more so that I knew what was coming down the pipeline.”

What followed were tough tests. South Carolina’s average margin of victory is a nation-best 29.6. It beat Indiana by only 4 points, and its 12-point win over Oregon State was more competitive than the final score suggests.

Which is why she soaked in Sunday’s celebration, inviting player families into the team picture, then taking photos with them separately. Signing towels, T-shirts and even a fan’s pair of sneakers, rejoicing with the dozens who rushed to the lowest rows of MVP Arena. Forty-five minutes after the win, Staley was still taking selfies with fans, as the lone player or coach in the stadium bowl. She had taken so many that multiple team staffers started reminding fans: “Have your phones ready.” The net was around Staley’s neck throughout.

“Each time we get an opportunity to knock down some nets to go to the Final Four is really special,” Staley said. “Because you don’t know when it’s going to be the last time that you’ll do it.”

Cardoso and Raven Johnson were part of South Carolina’s two prior Final Four appearances. But both are now stars. They weren’t newcomers but had moved into new roles. They were familiar with how to celebrate a regional title. Yet Cardoso said it still felt different. “Like we were able to do something and win,” she said.

She and Johnson were the last two Gamecocks to bask under the court lights. They took selfies together. Johnson did confetti angles with the trophy on her stomach, savoring it all.

(Photo of Dawn Staley: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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