Dawn Staley swatted away the lone annoyance of a perfect season with the perfect quip. When asked about South Carolina and LSU making the Final Four and restoring women’s basketball luster to the football-mad SEC, the coach took the opportunity to mock the persistent whining about the Gamecocks’ brand of basketball.
“Some people think the basketball is football,” she said before letting out a deep “hehe hehe” laugh to punctuate her naughty wit.
The lighthearted clapback belied a season of distressing and loaded insults, ranging from veiled commentary to a Geno Auriemma eruption in February. On its voyage through 36 games without a loss, the most dangerous opposition South Carolina has faced is the perception of the way it plays.
It’s a silly basketball culture war that veers with ease into weighty racial stereotypes. The Gamecocks are a big, physical, defense-driven team that punishes foes within the rules. For all of their talent, they bring a mill worker’s mentality to the court. They play harder than anyone for a longer period, and they do it with greater athleticism than most teams known for grinding out games. At the same time, they can speed up the tempo when necessary, giving them a rare smash-and-dash quality.
They’re exhausting in a way that resembles Georgetown when Patrick Ewing roamed the paint. Like Ewing in college, Aliyah Boston is a game-changing force who doesn’t have to post gaudy scoring numbers. Those Hoyas, gifted yet rugged as well, challenged many accepted basketball and societal beliefs, denounced bias with their success and became a cultural phenomenon. South Carolina is doing the same in the women’s game.
In a sense, the influential voice of Staley descends from John Thompson Jr.’s revolutionary tongue. As a coach, the former superstar point guard has become the face, the champion and the conscience of women’s basketball. She is two victories from leading the Gamecocks to their third championship in six tournaments and completing a masterpiece unlike any other perfect run in the sport’s history.
In an era in which musty gender norms are being disposed throughout society, the Gamecocks represent unapologetic dominance. They don’t obsess over softening their image of toughness. They are authentic, predominantly Black, competitive women who demonstrate the full spectrum of female athletes.
After beating Connecticut to win the national title last April, Staley spoke eloquently about the process to get Boston and her teammates to take command when there’s outside pressure for women to mask that kind of passion.
“I think a player like Aliyah doesn’t realize her power,” Staley said that night in Minneapolis. “I think she’s really a nice young lady, and she wants everything to be smooth, smooth sailing. She doesn’t want any conflict. She’s not confrontational. When you are like that, you don’t really understand the power of being dominant.
“Like, it’s such a, probably, masculine adjective. Like, to be dominant seems masculine. But it’s not. Very few athletes are able to be dominant, and when you are one of those athletes, if you don’t have somebody around you that recognizes it, they’ll allow you to just fly under the radar and blend in with other people who aren’t going to excel at the rate that Aliyah can excel. I’ve been around a lot of great basketball players who have been dominant, and I saw it in her, and I would not allow her to be anything less than that, even if I had to hurt her. From a basketball standpoint, I think I’m the perfect coach for her because I recognize what her gifts are and how to walk into that.”
As one cohesive team that can go 12 deep without much drop off, South Carolina has walked into its power this season. And it scares others into complaining about the Gamecocks’ physicality, especially when the 6-foot-5 Boston and 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso are on the court together, anchoring a team that outscores opponents by nearly 30 points and outrebounds them by 20 boards a game.
But the Gamecocks don’t cater to the chauvinistic gaze. They don’t care whether you consider their style pretty or charming. They didn’t build their popularity by projecting an oversimplified girl-next-door image. They refuse to suppress their dominance.
During South Carolina’s 81-77 victory over Connecticut in early February, Auriemma threw a water bottle onto court in Hartford, Conn., and received a technical foul. Afterward, he spoke of bruises on the body of forward Lou Lopez Sénéchal, complaining of both the abuse she had taken all season as well as the play of the Gamecocks that day.
“I didn’t say anything for a long, long, long time,” Auriemma said then. “And I just felt like — you want me to bring Lou in and see the bruises? It’s just appalling what teams do to her now. It’s not basketball anymore. It’s not basketball anymore. So that was the problem.”
A few days later, Staley defended her team.
“We’ve been called so many things, and I’m sick of it,” she said. “I’m sick of it because I coach some of the best human beings the game has ever had.”
Plenty of great women’s teams and players have been sick of working around others’ discomfort over their dominance. Few have been able to dismiss it as forcefully as South Carolina.
In an anticipated national semifinal against Iowa on Friday, the Gamecocks will play their most stylistically challenging game of the season. With their fast-paced, free-flowing attack and the create-a-player video game talent of Caitlin Clark, the Hawkeyes are different from South Carolina in every way. The contrast, star power and historical significance — with back-to-back South Carolina titles and an undefeated season on the line — provide the potential for a seminal game as women’s basketball progresses into an era in which the sport knows its worth and demands to receive it.
Beyond styles of play, the intensity will be palpable. Although she is a wizard with the basketball and not a defensive player, Clark is tough. Iowa center Monika Czinano is a physical, efficient post player. It remains to be seen whether any team can combat the depth of South Carolina, but this matchup should illuminate the range of the sport. The game doesn’t need to be gussied up and marketed to an audience defiant about its ambivalence. The authenticity, competition and evolution of the athletes can promote itself.
In an interview last summer before her retirement, legendary point guard Sue Bird talked about how the WNBA has grown over more than two decades.
“We were just trying so hard,” Bird said. “We were throwing things up against the wall, trying to survive, to see what would stick. We were trying to do that in a society where we thought: ‘Oh, we’ve got to put the feminine side forward. Oh, we’ve got to be cuter; maybe more fans will get into it.’ And then it just became, nah, you’ve just got to be yourself. And people are really going to love you or hate you. But at least it’s real.”
South Carolina, the realest team in college basketball, epitomizes what the pros learned: Do you. Dominance is neither masculine nor feminine. Even if hoops connoisseurs don’t love the aesthetics of everything the Gamecocks do, they cannot deny the greatness in their brand of basketball. Two more wins, and their style will be an eternal standard.