‘A fun year’: South Carolina looks past Final Four loss to reflect on historic season

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley walked into the Gamecocks’ emotional locker room Friday night at American Airlines Center hoping to give her team some perspective.

“Keep your head up,” she told them after their 77-73 Final Four loss to Iowa, while thanking them for their sacrifices and willingness to buy in during the season despite a disappointing ending.

A shot at a second national title escaped the seniors. The chance to win one for the first time got away from the freshmen.

For an undefeated, top-ranked and defending champion with skyscraping expectations, a Final Four loss is a premature end to a season. But what was accomplished during the year wasn’t lost on the Gamecocks.

“As a group, we’ve made history,” senior guard Zia Cooke said. “And I think it’s gonna go down in history, what we’ve been able to do. We’ve got the best players in the country, and we all came together and made something special.”

History all around

South Carolina’s 2022-23 campaign was an inescapable part of women’s basketball history.

Just within its own program, the team set a record for wins (36) and consecutive wins (42). Aliyah Boston broke the program records for double-doubles and rebounds while also becoming South Carolina’s first two-time Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.

The Gamecocks blocked an NCAA record 326 shots. They were the wire-to-wire No. 1 team in The Associated Press Top 25 for the second year in a row, and have kept that spot for 38 straight weeks — the second-most all time.

South Carolina turned winning into a hobby, and that made the Final Four loss to Iowa in Dallas as shocking as it was.

“You want to hold yourself to a certain standard,” senior guard Brea Beal said. “You want that for yourself. You expect that for yourself. So when it doesn’t happen, you’re disappointed. But anything can happen.”

South Carolina was caught in the hailstorm of No. 1 seeds that were knocked off in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. None of the four No. 1 seeds reached the championship game for the third time since the women’s basketball tournament began in 1982.

A repeat national title had only been accomplished by three programs in the sport’s history. A start-to-finish undefeated season had only been done by four. And South Carolina was four points away from a shot at both.

“You’ve got to take the good with the bad,” Staley said. “You play this game long enough, you’re not going to win all the basketball games.”

A legacy to remember

Friday’s loss was an anomaly, especially for the five four-year seniors on the roster known as “The Freshies.”

The 2019 recruiting class featured Boston, Cooke, Beal, Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson. South Carolina finished with a 129-9 record with them on the roster.

USC’s first Final Four trip with the Freshies took place in 2021, as the 32-1 team from 2020 had its season cut short by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Gamecocks missed two close shots at the end of the game before losing to Stanford in that first Final Four appearance. But they followed that loss with a 35-2 record the following year en route to a national championship.

South Carolina’s 2022 squad was a team yearning to never again experience a loss so soul-crushing. The 2023 Gamecocks were a team desperate to maintain the title-winning spirit.

In doing so, they simply stayed focused on one game at a time.

“We weren’t really focused on our streak or how long we’ve been undefeated,” Boston said. “It was really just about how we want to compete to go to the next step.”

Staley’s core group of “low-maintenance and high-performing” seniors will soon depart.

Boston — who produced the greatest career in a Gamecock uniform — officially announced her declaration for the WNBA Draft on Saturday, marking the end of an era and start of a new one.

Her legacy, along with the rest of the team, will be one that reflects how dominant they truly were, especially as the parity of women’s basketball picks up. The Gamecocks made themselves the team to beat, even as they came short in their title-defense efforts.

“I’m going to remember a fun year,” Boston said. “I think we had so many great experiences, just winning — how many games was that? Thirty-six games. I feel like that’s unbelievable.”

South Carolina will be much different, and much younger, next year.

It will be a talented team, but one that doesn’t yet have the household names from the last half-decade. Even with her championship pedigree as a coach, Staley knows there will be learning curves and teachable moments along the way.

But a bar has been set in Columbia, and a tradition has long been established.

“It’s never going to happen again,” Staley said of this year’s team. “They gave us all of them. They were selfless. They sacrificed. And they always thought about the greater good of the team, even to their detriment. So I’m going to remember that. You don’t experience that very often.”