South Carolina banking on balance and depth in title game

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By jeenmediaa

CLEVELAND — With 47 seconds left in the third quarter of Friday night’s national semifinal against NC State, South Carolina slings the ball around the perimeter. It ends up in transfer guard Te-Hina Paopao‘s hands. She launches a 3-point shot, and the Gamecocks’ bench players stand and cheer with their arms in the air as it drops through the net. Holding her follow-through, Paopao jogs back down the court.

When NC State’s River Baldwin catches the ball in the lane at the other end, she’s met by Sania Feagin and Ashlyn Watkins. Watkins swats the ball off the backboard.

The shot clock is off. South Carolina passes the ball around until Bree Hall takes a 3-pointer and swishes it through the bottom of the net as time expires in the third quarter. She’s the seventh member of the top-seeded Gamecocks to score in the quarter. Though their lead was just one point at halftime, it balloons to 24 heading into the fourth.

This is what South Carolina does, what it has done all season. What it will try to do Sunday afternoon against Iowa with a national championship on the line. The Gamecocks dominate, and they do it with depth.

During a remarkable women’s basketball season elevated by individual stars, including Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, UConn’s Paige Bueckers, LSU’s Angel Reese and USC’s JuJu Watkins, the Gamecocks are undefeated, balanced and deep. Coach Dawn Staley routinely goes nine deep in the rotation. In their first four NCAA tournament games, they had four different leading scorers and three different leading rebounders. In three of those four games, the Gamecocks’ leading scorer didn’t even start.

Iowa made the championship game on the back of its superstar, Clark (with more than a little help from Hannah Stuelke on Friday), but the Gamecocks got here because they are equals. That’s what they reminded themselves of in the locker room during halftime, and that’s what set the tone for the decisive third quarter against NC State.

“We all spoke as a team,” Paopao says after the 78-59 win. “That’s how close we are. Everyone spoke up, and we just had to trust each other and know that we’re going to come out in the third and do what we do. That’s what happened.”

WHEN SOUTH CAROLINA opened its season against Notre Dame in Paris in November, Staley was practically starting from scratch. The Gamecocks were ranked No. 6 in the country after graduating the previous season’s entire starting five.

It was a team full of new and inexperienced faces. Three freshmen. Three sophomores. Two juniors who had combined for exactly zero starts. A heralded transfer. Senior Kamilla Cardoso had the most experience of anyone in Staley’s system, but not even she had ever started a game at South Carolina.

They’d been practicing in Columbia all summer, feeling each other out. They thought they’d be competitive, but they weren’t sure they’d be good.

“You can ask any of my teammates, we thought we weren’t gonna be good,” said Hall, who averaged 13.9 minutes last season as a sophomore.

“We were just a little nervous,” said Paopao, who joined the Gamecocks after starting 76 games at Oregon. “We were a new team. We’d been practicing all summer, and we didn’t have any real games.”

But South Carolina was good — and then some. Freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley showed off her flashy style with a highlight drive and finish that announced her arrival on the scene. She drove down the right side of the floor, circling the ball around her waist as she cut across the lane to the left side. Then, she finished with a double-clutch scoop layup.

The Gamecocks entered the locker room at halftime up by 15, powered by a 25-8 second quarter. Four players made 3-pointers in the first half, and suddenly Cardoso had room to operate inside.

Eight players scored at least seven points that day, led by Cardoso with 20. Fulwiley had 17 in her college debut. Paopao had 14 in her Gamecocks debut. Raven Johnson had 11 in her first start, and Feagin came off the bench and scored 12. They beat the 10th-ranked Irish by 29.

“The Notre Dame game was a shocker,” Hall said. “It was like, ‘Oh, oh, we’re actually pretty good, guys. We’re good.'”

“We” being the operative word.

In their home opener against then-No. 14 Maryland, nine players scored eight points or more in a 38-point blowout. That’s when the Gamecocks ascended to No. 1, and they haven’t budged since. They got by defending national champion LSU in January. Even when Cardoso, their leading scorer and rebounder, left the team for two games to play for Brazil in an Olympic qualifier in February, the Gamecocks dispatched Missouri by 38 points and UConn by 18.

Close games have been a rarity this season for South Carolina, which has outscored opponents by a Division I-leading 29.4 points per game.

Through 36 wins entering the Final Four, they had seven players averaging at least eight points, the most on any Division I team this season, according to Her Hoop Stats data. Iowa has four. In Friday’s win against NC State, the Gamecocks got 30 points and 25 rebounds from their reserves. In Iowa’s win over UConn on Friday, the Hawkeyes got three points and no rebounds from their reserves.

“We pick ’em off the bench, and we didn’t miss a beat,” Raven Johnson said. “And that’s what makes us a great team.”

ONLY NINE TEAMS have ever finished a women’s college basketball season undefeated: 1985-86 Texas, 1994-95 UConn, 1997-98 Tennessee, 2001-02 UConn, 2008-09 UConn, 2009-10 UConn, 2011-12 Baylor, 2013-14 UConn and 2015-16 UConn. Of those, only Texas didn’t have that season’s Naismith Player of the Year on its roster, although freshman Clarissa Davis would go on to win it in 1987 and 1989. If South Carolina can beat Iowa on Sunday, it will become the second team to do it without the player of the year.

Staley, who was named Naismith women’s basketball Coach of the Year earlier this week, has coached two championship teams (2016-17 and 2021-22), but she has never had an undefeated national championship team. Not with A’ja Wilson. Not with Aliyah Boston. Not yet.

The 2022-23 season looked like it might be the one. Anchored by Boston and her “freshies” classmates — Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Laeticia Amihere and reserve Olivia Thompson — the Gamecocks entered the Final Four undefeated. But they were upset by Iowa 77-73 in the national semifinals.

At least so far this season, the Gamecocks’ perfection has only almost been derailed. A close call in Greenville, South Carolina, has fueled this postseason run.

South Carolina trailed Tennessee 73-71 in the semifinal of the SEC tournament with 1.1 seconds left. The Gamecocks had once led the Lady Vols by 23 points. Now, Raven Johnson was about to inbound the ball, but the game felt like it was already over. The realization of defeat washed over the Gamecocks as they waited for the clock to make it official.

Staley pointed at the free throw line from the sideline, guiding Cardoso into place. The center stuck her hand into the air to call for the ball. She stepped toward the 3-point line to catch the inbounds pass. No defender came with her. The Tennessee player guarding Paopao stayed with her as well, taking away South Carolina’s first option on the play and leaving Cardoso wide open.

With no one contesting, Cardoso squared up to the basket and shot. She had never made a 3-pointer during her South Carolina career. The ball bounced off the backboard and through the basket. Cardoso jumped in the air in jubilation as her teammates rushed the court.

After the locker room celebrations subsided, the realization of what almost happened hit.

“We’re like, ‘That was God showing us what it would be like if we lost,'” Hall said.

“We were up so much,” Paopao said. “And then, they came back because we were undisciplined, that feeling where we almost could have lost our one game of the season. And I know we don’t ever want to play in a close game like that again.”

During the NCAA tournament, however, South Carolina has played in close games. The Gamecocks have blown big leads. They’ve looked vulnerable. But so far, they’ve managed to find a way to win. Usually from different sources. Raven Johnson hit a dagger 3-point shot against Indiana in the Sweet 16. Tessa Johnson scored 15 points against Oregon State to help seal a Final Four berth. Cardoso scored 22 points and Watkins grabbed 20 rebounds to send the Gamecocks to the championship game at 37-0.

An undefeated season didn’t even seem within the realm of possibility in November. Even a fourth straight trip to the Final Four seemed like a stretch. But now, here they are. A win away from a perfect season and the Gamecocks’ third national championship since 2017. When pushed, the Gamecocks have come together, they’ve trusted each other, they’ve stayed loose.

“Dawn told us we’re so crazy and so with each other that if a boat was sinkin’ we would hold hands and just sink together,” Fulwiley said.

ARMS CROSSED, FULWILEY stood in the Gamecocks’ locker room the day before South Carolina’s second-round game against North Carolina, trying to pay attention to the questions she was being asked. The noise from other interviews as reporters crowded the space created a cacophony of voices and sound.

Then, there was whatever Tessa Johnson and Raven Johnson were doing. Fulwiley tried to focus but caught movement out of the corner of her eye. Raven tried to corral a watermelon-sized balloon as Tessa playfully interviewed Staley. With Staley focused on Tessa, Raven got a leaping start and attempted to smash Staley with the pink balloon. The coach swatted it away.

Moments later, Watkins approached the group of Raven Johnson, Chloe Kitts, Cardoso and Staley, clutching yet another balloon. Watkins’ teammates locked arms to create a makeshift hoop.

“Ashlyn, do not get hurt,” Staley said. She repeated the plea.

Watkins jumped and tried to dunk the ball over Staley through the arms of her teammates. Staley swatted this attempt as well, sending the balloon to the ceiling. It brushed against the light and popped.

“Dawn said this was day care,” Fulwiley said, still standing by her locker. “She was not lying.”

This young, fun-loving, playful group is different from South Carolina teams of the recent past. It’s not that those teams didn’t love each other or have fun, but this version of the Gamecocks is noticeably looser. There isn’t an established senior leader like Boston was. Instead, there’s transfer Paopao with her garnet and white braids, who prefers to lead by example. Instead, there’s trickster Raven Johnson, who pranked Staley earlier in the year by telling her she was going to transfer. Instead, there’s the quiet strength of Watkins, who isn’t afraid to dunk on her coach. Instead, there’s Tessa Johnson conducting silly interviews in the locker room. It’s a dynamic that has tested Staley all season.

“They live in the moment,” Staley said. “And it’s great ’cause I live in the moment. If something’s funny, I’m gonna laugh. But I can flip it right there. Gotta get back to what’s important. They haven’t quite mastered that part of it. But I like the fact they are who they are.”

“When [Staley] was younger, maybe, she related to it a bit more, let’s put it that way,” associate head coach Lisa Boyer said. “This team is much different than last year’s team. They are young. And what we’ve learned is that we need to embrace it.”

After South Carolina beat Indiana 79-75 after giving up a 22-point lead in the Sweet 16, Staley, Hall and Raven Johnson sat at the dais for the news conference. Johnson was asked about the Gamecocks’ perimeter shooting and how well-rounded they were as a team. She waxed poetic about how good the Gamecocks were and how they were so difficult to guard.

Staley interrupted her, leaning forward into the mic. “We gave up a 17- or 20-point lead,” she said.

Johnson and Hall looked at each other and busted out laughing.

FULWILEY DRIBBLES OUT the clock as it winds down in the fourth quarter of the national semifinal against NC State. Tessa Johnson claps as she walks behind her. Kitts and Feagin come over and give Fulwiley a tap on the backside. Hugs are plentiful, but the on-court celebration isn’t exuberant. No dancing or chanting.

Even in the locker room, there is no stomping or cheering. No water bottle sprays. No bashing of balloons.

“You’d be shocked,” Hall says. “It was a good celebration, but it was not how people think we are. We want to win it all. Once we win it all, then we can burst outside of ourselves.”

Winning it all means avenging last season’s Final Four loss to Clark and Iowa. The Gamecocks won’t match Clark’s star power, but maybe they won’t need to. Balance and depth have carried them this far.

“We just love being out there with each other,” Paopao says.

On Sunday, they’ll hold hands. They’ll fight together. Anything to keep the boat from sinking.

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