There’s an outlier on the South Carolina women’s basketball schedule. It happened nearly two months ago in Columbia, Missouri to begin Southeastern Conference play against Mizzou. The Gamecocks were at full strength while the Tigers were far from it. An Omicron outbreak knocked out six players, leaving Missouri the gargantuan task of taking down the nation’s best team with eight available players.
Not on the floor that night was Missouri’s best player and double-double machine Aijha Blackwell. And South Carolina, as this season’s Goliath, finally met its David. The Gamecocks lost by one point in overtime. If there had been three-tenths of a second more on the clock at Mizzou Arena, South Carolina wins that game on an in-bound tip-in by Aliyah Boston.
That night still represents the only loss of the Gamecocks’ season. They’re 25-1 and 13-1 in the SEC, taking down other powerhouses in the deepest conference in America. That loss to Missouri only burst South Carolina’s perfect record. It’s been the No. 1 team in the country wire to wire, still picking up 22 of the 30 first-place votes in the next edition of the AP poll. The last three weeks have been unanimous votes for SC atop the rankings.
Even with the usual strength from the SEC, head coach Dawn Staley and company put together an absurdly aggressive non-conference schedule. The Gamecocks had six games against teams in the top 15 of the country, all wins. Usual powerhouses like UConn, Stanford, Maryland, N.C. State and Oregon, as well as Kara Lawson’s Duke squad, all were beaten by South Carolina. And the other non-conference games? Blowouts. The closest one was a Gamecocks’ 21-point win against Kansas State. The Wildcats are a No. 8 seed in ESPN’s latest Bracketology.
Dominant seasons like the one South Carolina is putting together aren’t incredibly rare in women’s basketball, like UConn last season, before getting tripped up in the Final Four. Or Baylor in 2019. Or South Carolina in 2017. That doesn’t mean when it happens it’s any less special. The Gamecocks’ current tour de force has two games left in the regular season, against Texas A&M and Ole Miss, who they’ve already defeated in prior matchups this year by a combined 49 points.
Since the 2013-14 season, every South Carolina team has reached at least the Sweet Sixteen, minus the 2020 squad, which had its 32-1 season ended due to the pandemic. Staley raising the profile of South Carolina women’s basketball is one of the most underrated sports stories of the last decade. Before her arrival, the Gamecocks had one trip to the Elite Eight and no Final Four appearances. Now, that’s part of the yearly expectations for the program.
Staley is the SEC’s highest-paid women’s basketball coach, at $2.9 million, higher than rival Kim Mulkey, who is making $2.5 million in her first season guiding LSU after continued success at Baylor. Staley is also South Carolina’s second-highest paid head coach at the moment, behind men’s basketball coach Frank Martin, who will make $3.2 million this season. Gamecocks football coach Shane Beamer makes $2.75 million. Staley deserves every bit of her current contract, which should make her the highest-paid coach at SC by the time her deal reaches $3.5 million in 2027.
After receiving her new contract in October, Staley has put together the strongest coaching job of her career. She said during that 2019-20 season that the team still had patterns that relied on A’ja Wilson, who hadn’t been with the team since 2018 and was drafted first overall that year by the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces. Staley has had no shortage of talent since Wilson’s professional career began but no signs of the Wilson-era schemes affect this squad. A big reason why may be the emergence of their next superstar in Boston.
While the Gamecocks are a shoe-in to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, possibly even with a major late-season collapse, Boston is the frontrunner for every Division I player of the year award. Her dominance has made those decisions more of an inevitability than a discussion. Boston’s 16.8-point scoring average and 11.9 rebounds per game are elite marks. The difference her presence makes every time the Gamecocks step on the floor. Without her, how many more games will South Carolina have lost?
The Gamecocks have a deep squad that’s national-championship ready. That’s also an obvious statement. For the first time, the NCAA women’s tournament will be affiliated with the “March Madness” taglines. It’ll also be the first tournament in three years outside of a bubble, with full-crowd capacities. South Carolina just has to finish the job.