DALLAS—Following Selection Monday, news broke that South Carolina’s Alaina Coates, one of the premier post players in the NCAA, would be out for the remainder of the post-season after suffering an ankle injury.
Around the same time that announcement was made, many people around the country wrote them off. How could South Carolina win a national title without one half of the best high-low post duo in the game, who was averaging 13 points and nearly 11 rebounds?
All of the doubters never expected that come April 2, the South Carolina Gamecocks would have their first title in program history.
To accomplish that feat, the Gamecocks would need to reinvent themselves, and more importantly, they would need other players to step up. And after reaching the Final Four and beating Stanford, they would have to topple Mississippi State for the third time this season.
In any sport, beating the same team three times in one season is hard. But beating the team who was still riding high after ending UConn’s record setting 111-game win streak? That would be an even tougher task.
But behind the other half of that stellar post duo, A’ja Wilson, and the two players who had to step up in Coates’ absence, Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis, the Gamecocks were ready for their primetime stage.
That readiness, preparedness, mental toughness, and reinvention in the face of adversity is what led to South Carolina besting Mississippi State, 67-55.
It's what led to them dominating inside the paint at both ends of the court to claim their first ever title.
Wilson finished the night with a Final Four most outstanding player award and with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Gray joined Wilson with a double-double of her own and had 18 points and grabbed 10 boards, while Davis rounded out the scorers in double figures with 10.
South Carolina outscored Mississippi State in the paint 42-20, and outrebounded the Bulldogs 40-28. To dominate that well inside the paint in the national title game shows just how much Gray and Davis had to step up in Coates’ absence.
And while it is the first time the Gamecocks will hoist a national championship trophy, this win also represents the first national title for one of the game’s all-time greats.
Head coach Dawn Staley had never won a national title, as a player at Virginia or in her 16 previous years coaching. To say she was due for one would be an understatement.
South Carolina got to this point by taking the road less traveled And in hindsight, it seems ridiculous that many had already written them off before the tournament even tipped.
Because if a team is able to successfully reinvent themselves heading into the NCAA tournament, and is led by one of the best coaches the game has ever seen, why wouldn’t they be capable of winning the whole thing?