COLUMBIA, S.C. — No. 1 South Carolina has stuffed its win column with impressive victories against quality opponents during its unblemished start to the season.
Dawn Staley’s top-ranked club has met every challenge this season heading into its holiday break.
“I just feel with every big win that we have, it instills some confidence in our team,” Staley said. “They know they’re pretty good and they know they’re prepared.”
South Carolina opened the year by defeating then-No. 5 North Carolina State 66-57 in Raleigh. A triumphant trip to win the Battle4Atlantis tournament followed, beating then-No. 9 Oregon in the semifinals and No. 2 UConn for the title.
The Gamecocks outlasted Maryland, then No. 8, 66-59 on Dec. 12 before winning at resurgent No. 15 Duke 55-46.
Against Stanford, South Carolina fell behind 18 points in the second quarter before rallying for the biggest comeback in program history.
“This shows a lot about our team,” point guard Destanni Henderson said. “It shows the depth we have from the starting five, from the people on the bench who make a spark.”
For Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie, whose team lost 65-44 at South Carolina on Dec. 3, the Gamecocks’ relentless defense sets them apart.
“I thought on film, this was one of the best defensive teams I’d seen in the last 10 years,” he said. “They recover quickly after plays. They block a ton of shots and they are very sound.”
South Carolina is 12th nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 50.2 points a game this season. The defensive effort starts with All-American forward Aliyah Boston and Brea Beal, both part of Staley’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class entering the 2019 season.
The 6-foot-5 Boston is ninth nationally with more than three blocks a game, and in the top 30 in rebounds at 10.1 per game.
Beal sacrifices her scoring for defense, typically matched up against the opposition’s best player. Earlier this month, Beal swarmed over Maryland’s dynamic point guard Ashley Owusu, limiting her to 3-of-17 shooting and 11 points, six below her average.
“That’s what she does,” Staley said of Beal.
The 51-year-old Staley has much to be thankful for this holiday season.
She interviewed with the Portland Trail Blazers for their NBA coaching opening, led the U.S. women’s Olympic team to the gold medal in Tokyo and received a ceiling-busting, $22.4 million contract before the season that elevated her among the highest-paid coaches in the game.
Off the court, her sister Tracey Underwood continues to improve after dealing with leukemia and a bone marrow transplant in August 2020.
On the court, Staley knows national titles aren’t won in November and December, and there’s more work ahead to capture the program’s second championship.
South Carolina could very well be chasing its third straight crown. COVID-19 canceled the NCAAs in 2020, with the top-ranked Gamecocks on a 26-game win streak.
This past spring, South Carolina reached the Final Four but came up short against Stanford after two missed inside shots from Beal and Boston prevented the Gamecocks playing for the championship.
“It’s lingered for a while, I would say,” Beal said of the loss. “At some point, in order to get better, you’ve got to get over it.”
South Carolina is playing as if its over it. But the Gamecocks, while off to dominant start, have much more to prove.
The Southeastern Conference season starts Dec. 30 at Missouri, then kicks into gear with consecutive matchups against ranked opponents in LSU, Kentucky and Texas A&M over a three-game stretch beginning Jan. 6.
There’s another matchup with UConn on Jan. 27, although that likely won’t include Huskies star Paige Bueckers, who is recovering from knee surgery.
Beal believes South Carolina has the extra motivation to complete the championship journey, and doesn’t plan to let up.
“That’s definitely the chip on our shoulder,” she said. ———