No motivation needed: Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks committed to staying nation’s best team

National championships have become the expectation for Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks.

The team held its first official preseason practice on Wednesday on the heels of its second national title run in five years. The season tips off Nov. 7.

South Carolina returns four of its five starters from last season, with Destanni Henderson departing for the WNBA.

“We’ve created championship behavior,” Staley said. “This group all along has wanted to win championships. They never said, ‘One championship.’ They said, ‘championships.’ ”

The team was motivated last year by the heartbreaking defeat in the 2021 Final Four, Staley said, but any need for avenging that loss is gone.

She also cited her 2017-18 USC team that came off its own national championship run, saying that the journey to the postseason “got stale” for them.

“We can’t allow that to seep into this year,” Staley said.

As the defending champion looking for back-to-back titles, Staley said this year’s Gamecocks are committed to remaining the best team in the nation this coming season.

“We’re not motivating anyone,” she said. “Everybody’s at a place where they’re just competing. And it’s a healthy competition.”

The group is led on the court by Aliyah Boston — the reigning National Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the year. Boston enters her fourth season as a Gamecock and is widely projected as the top pick in next year’s WNBA Draft.

The team’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker from a year ago, she comes into this year looking to help USC maintain its dominance.

“It’s a new year with the same goal,” Boston said. “I can’t really take anything off from what I’ve been doing to win national championships like I did last year. I’m just focused on how to get better.”

Three of the players on South Carolina’s roster — freshmen Ashlyn Watkins and Talaysia Cooper, and transfer Kierra Fletcher — weren’t members of the 2021-22 run, so Boston and the returning Gamecocks will look to bring them along.

“It’d be great and special to have that with us this year, and that’s going to be the plan,” Boston said. “We work hard every time we step on this floor, making sure we’re doing things off the court that always us to get to where we want to be.”

Fletcher, a projected point guard, is among the new additions to the roster as a transfer from Georgia Tech.

Fletcher redshirted last season due to a foot injury. She’s working her way back from that but has been able to play with the team in parts.

She’s also still adjusting to Staley’s system. As a college basketball veteran, though, she feels she’s done well so far.

“The things I did at Georgia Tech, she said if I brought that to South Carolina, that’s pretty much all that they needed,” Fletcher said.

With the returning experience the team has, they know the style of play and expectations that come with playing for USC.

“I think there’s been a lot of growth,” Boston said. “There’s a lot more communication, which I think shows part of our maturity, which is going to help us.”

Heading into the season, South Carolina will be the team to beat nationally.

The Gamecocks were 35-2 overall a season ago with double-digit winning margins in all postseason games.

“We’re the only group that can say we’re going to go back-to-back at this point,” Staley said. “And that’s going to be our focus.”