MINNEAPOLIS – The superlatives gushed out for Dawn Staley.
An acceptance of near-insurmountable pressure. Taking a No. 1 ranking and fearlessly running with it from day one to day done, which was when South Carolina (35-2) finished the job Sunday night, clinching its second national championship, defeating UConn, 64-49, inside the Target Center in Minneapolis.
From top to bottom, a roster by Staley’s own design overflowing with talent. And a commitment from several former four- and five-star recruits to buy into the national championship process and roles without question.
There are numerous reasons why this South Carolina team, the team of purported destiny that lost only two games all season by a combined three points, is the best to do it under Staley at USC.
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It has the necessary bill.
►The National Player of the Year in junior star junior forward Aliyah Boston shouldering the load with opposing teams packing the paint in attempt to slow her down and still efficiently and consistently.
►Senior point guard Destanni Henderson, who dropped a career-high 26 points in the 2022 National Championship Game against UConn, was also on finalist lists for top overall player and the nation’s best point guard. She played like it during the Gamecocks’ NCAA tourney run to the title.
►Brea Beal, who was in charge of shutting down the other team’s best scorer, and Victaria Saxton, the lengthy and athletic forward who could block and alter shots in the lane, found their roles and executed those key skills in crunch time. Two starters and defensive stalwarts who weren’t going to wow you on the offensive stat sheet but were comfortable what they brought to the team.
►Then there’s Zia Cooke. And Kamilla Cardoso, the tallest transfer from last season, who thrived in her reserve role as well. Freshman standout Saniya Rivers, a former five-star prospect, came off the bench and got better as the season progressed.
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How this South Carolina team homogenized and formed that right level of harmony that paved the way for a team-record number of wins against ranked opponents in a single season with 14, making history with the win over UConn for the championship.
This Gamecocks squad beat all the key teams: Stanford. UConn. North Carolina State and Louisville. Tennessee and Maryland.
“It shows our determination,” junior key reserve Laeticia Amihere said as confetti rained down inside Target Center. “After two losses, people started to doubt us, but we stayed together. We knew what we’re capable of, and tonight, we completed the mission.
“We are ranked No. 1 and were ranked No. 1 this whole season. We’re going to carry that chip on our shoulder.”
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This South Carolina team knew getting back to the Final Four was just the beginning of whether this season would be a success. It accomplished the feat, marking another first for Staley’s program reaching back-to-back Final Fours.
To Staley, the manner in which USC fulfilled its destiny is what puts the 2021-22 team above the 2017 national championship team or the one that appeared ready to win it all before the pandemic abruptly halted the season in 2020.
It goes back to defense. The final stamp on the season, holding UConn to 49 points with every eye of the sport tuned in, provided the most important label in Staley’s mind.
South Carolina dominated its NCAA Tournament opponents, holding all of them to well below their season averages in scoring. For the season, it allowed just 50 points per game.
Beyond Boston’s supremacy, key role players’ ability to impact the game meant this Gamecocks team literally could win in a myriad of ways. That made USC nearly impossible to beat, even amid lengthy scoring droughts during games and more turnovers than Staley cared for.
All momentary deficiencies could be remedied on the fly. As Staley said heading into the NCAA Tournament after the upset loss to Kentucky for the SEC title, the reliance on defense and group’s execution of it was the cure.
This South Carolina team came out on the other side, standing on the stage in a confetti shower, earning the moniker as the best.
Not just in the nation for this season but also at a USC program that continues to train itself as one of women’s college basketball giants.
“I do think this is our best team, just the roster from top to bottom, the commitment to their roles,” Staley said. “And then you’ve got to go back last year, like no other team had played in back-to-back Final Fours. No other team has been the No. 1 team in the country from beginning to the end and then win the national championship.
“Then they can defend. I think we’re an elite defensive team. That’s the separator from my other teams.”
Cory Diaz covers the South Carolina Gamecocks for The Greenville News as part of the USA TODAY Network. Follow his work for all things Gamecocks on Twitter: @CoryDiaz_TGN. Got questions regarding South Carolina athletics? Send them to Cory Diaz at [email protected].
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism