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Gamecocks go 39-0, Huskies win back to back titles

Jimmy Myers
Gamecocks go 39-0, Huskies win back to back titles
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley cuts down the net to celebrate the Gamecock’s championship win. PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA ATHLETICS

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As the final seconds ticked down on the NCAA Division One Women’s Basketball Championship game, my overwhelming thought for the teams was, “Relief!” When the final buzzer sounded with South Carolina 87 and Iowa 75, I felt delighted for coach Dawn Staley and her Gamecocks team.

The Gamecocks of South Carolina had put the crowning touch on a perfect 38-0 season under head coach and Philadelphia native Dawn Staley to capture the third NCAA national championship in school history and the first perfect season in South Carolina women’s basketball. Coach Staley’s first words, “All glory to God,” perfectly expressed the historical moment.

To put this achievement into perspective, one must only look at the dominance of this South Carolina women’s basketball program over the last three years. Their 109-3 record with two national titles is the stuff of legend.

But as I wrote in the last edition of the Banner, the pressure on head coach Dawn Staley was tremendous. Her team attempted to become only the 10th in college basketball history to complete an entire season undefeated.

Just saying the word “undefeated” can chill you. When you add the high-level college basketball competition element to the equation, you can understand the pressure component attached.

Just about every person who has coached or played on an undefeated team will tell you that there are moments when defeat was only a breath away. That moment came for South Carolina on March 9 in the Southeastern Conference postseason tournament semi-final game. The University of Tennessee held a two-point lead over South Carolina with just seconds to play in regulation.

Two critical missed free throws gave South Carolina a glimmer of hope. Coach Staley called a play — with options. Star center Kamilla Cardoso stepped behind the three-point line and fired a shot. Cardoso, a native of Brazil who transferred from Syracuse University to South Carolina to play for Staley, banked in the game-winning three-point shot as the buzzer sounded to preserve the perfect season with a 74-73 victory.

Cardoso had practiced shooting from a three-point distance but had not made a three-pointer all season until that moment. I am sure the coach felt total relief following the game-winning shot. There would be other close calls on the road to perfection, including multiple occasions when the Gamecocks blew double-digit leads only to hold on for nail-biting wins.

This Staley team began the season trying to recover from a devastating one-loss season last year, with that defeat coming in the Final Four semi-final game against Iowa. Iowa All-American guard Caitlin Clark dazzled the Gamecocks, scoring 41 points to lead her team to a 77-73 triumph. As I wrote in a previous edition of the Banner, the criticism of Staley’s in-game coaching adjustments was blistering.

MiLaysia Fulwiley makes a layup for the Gamecocks. PHOTO:

Knowing this proud woman from her days as a youth, playing against boys and men in their leagues, I knew her pain. She was devastated, but not destroyed. And like most great competitors, she dusted herself off, got off the deck, and came back swinging.

Sonny Hill said, “Dawn gained her physical and mental toughness from growing up in a public housing project in Philadelphia. I, along with a village of people, helped to raise her. She honed her playing skills in the Sonny Hill Basketball League.”

The iconic WIP-FM radio talk show host (of the “In the Living Room” program) added, “The lessons she learned during her youth prepared her for the success she currently enjoys. She did the work required of her, and she is now enjoying the benefits of success.”

Staley stated that when she got a first look at this year’s team, she considered retiring. She could have easily walked away, considering she had already won two national titles (2017 and 2022) and multiple Final Four appearances on her Hall of Fame resume. But anyone who knows Dawn Staley will tell you that’s not her way.

She went to work, molding this young team, featuring star players MiLaysia Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson (both freshmen) into a cohesive unit with returning players Bree Hall, Raven Johnson, Cardoso, Te-Hina Paopao, and other strong players to create this juggernaut.

Staley summarized the team this way:

“This team is special because everyone sacrificed for each other — from players to coaches. My players genuinely like each other on and off the court. They are a tight unit that enjoys playing together. They hold each other close and accountable. The same goes for our coaching staff.”

The Gamecock women players speak of their coach in reverent terms, and she speaks of them with the highest respect: “I truly thank God for this incredible group of women and the journey he took us on to reach this mountaintop.”

The final test for this team came in the championship game against nemesis Iowa and All-American Caitlin Clark.

The Hawkeyes stormed to an early 10-0 lead and upped the count to 21-9 before South Carolina settled down and started to play its game. Clark, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division One College Basketball (women and men), scored 10 quick points to lead the early Iowa offensive assault. She would score a championship game-record 18 points in the first quarter.

Credit coach Staley for her strategy to switch defensive assignments, with Raven Johnson replacing Bree Hall as the primary defender on Clark. Johnson, who took severe flack for her poor performance in last year’s Final Four loss to Iowa, stepped up to the moment with stellar defensive work on Clark for the rest of the game, limiting the Iowa scoring phenom to five-for-20 shooting from the floor. Clark would finish with 28 points on 10-for-28 attempts. She also committed four turnovers.

Johnson assessed her defensive work on Clark this way: “I studied her moves all year and applied what I learned by watching her.” Johnson’s key steal and layup (two of her three points) with seconds to go before halftime pushed South Carolina to a three-point advantage at intermission. The steal and layup were one of, if not the key plays, of the contest.

“On the steal, I just applied what I learned studying her game,” said Johnson afterward.

Clark concurred: “She [Raven Johnson] defended me well and got help from her teammates. That South Carolina team is solid.”

The Gamecocks took charge in the third quarter and rode the momentum home to victory. Their bench outscored Iowa 37-0 — the most bench points in a championship game in the last 25 years.

Kamilla Cardoso was named Most Outstanding Player of the Women’s Final Four, scoring 15 points and grabbing 17 rebounds. Tessa Johnson came off the bench to lead the Lady Gamecocks with 19 points. She combined with Fulwiley for 28 points, eight rebounds, and five assists.

But I will always remember the look on South Carolina coach Dawn Staley’s face. That look was priceless — just like every face of an unbeaten team.

Congratulations to the 2023-24 Gamecocks of South Carolina — the new national champions of the NCAA’s Division One Women’s College Basketball world, with a historic perfect 38-0 record.

Men’s Final Four

The scribes in Storrs can now write another page in the Connecticut Men’s Basketball history book following their 75-60 dismantling of Purdue in the NCAA Division One Championship game. The Huskies’ total domination of men’s college basketball over the last two years has now produced back-to-back national collegiate basketball titles — the first time that has happened in men’s college basketball since the University of Florida pulled off the feat back in 2006 and 2007. (A short note of history to put this accomplishment into perspective: Celtics veteran forward Al Horford, currently in his 17th NBA season, was a member of those Florida teams).

Upon winning last year’s national title, UConn coach Dan Hurley said, “There is more to come.” Following this year’s national title, Hurley said, “Connecticut runs college basketball at this time.”

And who can argue with the man when you consider the results of his team’s work?

Beginning this season with the target of “national champions” on their backs, the Huskies knew they would be every team’s big game every night. Add to that the fact that they had lost star players Adama Sanogo, Jordan Hawkins, and Andre Jackson Jr. to the NBA and the history since 2007 of no repeat champions, and this year’s Huskies players knew the magnitude of the challenge they faced.

They left no doubt of their superiority, winning 37 games while losing just three. They won the Big East regular and postseason titles before entering the NCAA postseason competition as the overall No. 1 seed.

Their domination continued with solid double-digit victories in the six NCAA tournament games needed to secure the second of their repeat championship runs, setting the record for margin of victory (+140).

The championship game was just a coronation for this dynamic team.

Led by All-American guard Tristan Newton (20 points, seven assists, five rebounds), the Huskies pushed out to a 38-30 halftime lead. Newton was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

The Purdue Boilermakers, led by All-American center Zach Edey, who had a game-high 37 points and 10 rebounds, fought but had no answers to stop the Huskies’ precision offensive attack.

At the start of the second half, UConn roared to a 20-12 advantage and turned out the lights from there. All that remained was the confetti shower and the inking of the Connecticut Huskies’ name in the record books.

The Connecticut men’s basketball program has won six NCAA Division One titles (6-0 in championship games) in the last 25 years, including this current back-to-back run. The program deserves the platitudes placed on it following its second straight title. As coach Dan Hurley and his team left the victory podium, you got the feeling that this championship run might reach his predicted total of five before it’s over. We shall see.