GREENVILLE, S.C. — While wearing the champions’ hat, with blue and red confetti sticking to her Louis Vuitton jump suit, Dawn Staley took the microphone and flexed some muscle.
She has transcended her sport. So when Staley speaks, as she did after her No. 1 Gamecocks outlasted Maryland in a physical Elite Eight matchup, winning 86-75, she does so with intent.
“To our wonderful, to our loud fans. This is what an arena is supposed to sound like,” Staley said Monday night, playing to the heavy Gamecocks crowd inside the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. “I hope we can host this every year.”
She meant that as more than a suggestion. But as the architect of the latest dynasty in women’s hoops, now making its third consecutive Final Four trip, Staley may just make the game bend to her wishes.
Women’s college basketball has a new capital, all because of Staley. This will be her program’s fifth Final Four appearance in the last eight tournaments, and when Staley climbs the ladder to cut down the nets, she has to follow a certain protocol. South Carolina has done this so often, she knows the angles she must smile toward to appease the program’s photographers.
“We’ve got a choreographer to make sure they get the right pictures,” Staley said.
The stars, role players and little-known players of South Carolina, too, have plenty of pieces of nylon for their treasure chests. And although college coaches now must re-recruit their own players to keep them in house and away from the transfer portal, the four seniors in the Gamecocks’ starting lineup (Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Victaria Saxton) have remained in Columbia, S.C., since their baby-faced freshmen days.
They’ve stayed because they win in South Carolina. They’ve stayed because of her.
“She was fly way before we got here, so let’s get that straight,” Cooke once said about Staley’s sideline attire. “Coach is the GOAT when it comes to putting that … on. She knows what she’s doing.”
On Monday night, it wasn’t as though her Gamecocks played as sharp as Staley dresses. Early on, they did not perform up to the expectations of a top-seeded, undefeated team. They left way too many layups on the floor and not in the rim, and this casual offense showed in the box score: only 33.3 percent shooting through the first quarter. So, no. They were not clean. The problem for Maryland, however, was that Gamecocks were relentless.
They came at Maryland like boulders cascading down a hill. When they missed all those layups, they cemented themselves in the lane, ready to snatch down the offensive rebound. Though Terps players reached for the same bouncing ball, they often left the paint empty-handed, as South Carolina pulled down an unfathomable number of 25 offensive boards. With their size advantage, the Gamecocks preferred to play inside-out. But against defensive zone looks, Beal and Cooke searched for and made opportunistic three-pointers.
And the Terrapins had to stand there and take it. Or try by any means to stop it.
Although Maryland players played big at times early in the game — 6-foot-1 backup guard Lavender Briggs blocking the 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso from behind, then Abby Meyers similarly stuffing South Carolina’s Laeticia Amihere — their aggressive efforts would soon catch the attention of the officials.
As South Carolina kept coming, the Terps could only foul to stop the torrent. Sophomore guard Shyanne Sellers, called for an offensive foul, had to take a seat with two fouls with 9:01 to play in the half. Less than 30 seconds later, senior Diamond Miller, after committing her second, joined Sellers on the sideline. Before the halfway mark of the second quarter, the Terps already had six team fouls. And by the end of the game, their frustration about it still simmered.
Responding to a question about South Carolina’s physicality, Miller said, “It’s funny how you say that when all the fouls were going one way, I felt like.”
Meyers, sitting next to her teammate during the postgame news conference, caught on to Miller’s vibe and added her own touch of sarcasm: “So we were the more physical team, apparently.”
“Yeah,” Miller said, taking back over. “So we were really physical because apparently they were getting all the foul calls. That just shows we have heart, we have grit, and just because they’re taller doesn’t mean we can’t bang. If y’all didn’t see that we were banging today, I don’t know what could show you that. Yeah, clearly we needed to be more physical, I guess, on the offensive side because every time they hit us, nothing was called.”
Coach Brenda Frese noted the second quarter as the deciding factor in the game. Meyers had to do the heavy lifting, scoring seven of the team’s nine points. With her fellow starters in foul trouble, she was surrounded by role players, and South Carolina outrebounded that group 15-5. It became too much.
“I thought the game was lost in the second quarter,” Frese said. “The foul trouble, the amount of times throughout the game that they were in the bonus really impacted our play. But you can see their size, their length, their depth wears you out as the game continues on.”
Frese spent the final seconds of the defeat subbing out her seniors and pulling them close for one last hug. She hugged Miller, who left the court sobbing. She then gathered Meyers into her arms. Senior guard Faith Masonius comforted graduate student Elisa Pinzan, who wiped her tears with her black jersey before joining the handshake line. For that moment, the frustration over the fouls subsided, and the reality that this was the end filled the Terps’ sideline.
“Yeah, I’m probably not going to be able to sleep for a few nights following this game,” Meyers said. “But I think that for me, I’m just so grateful to have had this opportunity to come to an amazing school and make a deep run into the postseason and go to an Elite Eight. I think it’s just rare and something I’ll always cherish and never take for granted. This team I played with this past season has been such a special, amazing team. So much talent with an incredible coaching staff and support staff. It’s really a family and a community.”
When Maryland left for the locker room, the court and the celebration belonged to South Carolina. “Sandstorm” blared throughout the arena. Players escaped from the yellow ropes to scream and dance closer to their fans. Staley took the mic. And the reign of the sport’s latest dynasty rolled on.