The South Carolina Gamecocks entered the 2021-22 NCAA season with unfinished business. Having lost in 2021’s Final Four by the slimmest of margins, the Gamecocks returned with more experience, more depth and a chip on their shoulder, determined to finish what they had started.
One incredible regular season and four NCAA Tournament wins later, the Gamecocks find themselves back where their previous journey ended. Head coach Dawn Staley had challenged her team with a demanding nonconference schedule, a challenge that South Carolina passed with flying colors: The Gamecocks went a perfect 10-0 against ranked opponents this season, highlighted by wins over NC State, Connecticut, Maryland and Stanford, continuously proving themselves to be the cream of the crop in Division I basketball.
An SEC Tournament letdown against Kentucky turned out to be only a small bump in the road. South Carolina bounced back as the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, crushing Howard and Miami in the first two rounds and warding off a challenge by North Carolina in the Sweet 16. From there, the Gamecocks woke Creighton from its Cinderella dream, defeating the Bluejays by 30 in the Elite Eight and emerging from the tournament’s Greensboro region as the last team standing.
South Carolina’s formula for success should be familiar to those who have watched Staley build the program into a national powerhouse. The Gamecocks roster is, of course, chock full of top recruits, but the team’s defensive identity is greater than what any one player brings to the court. According to Her Hoop Stats, South Carolina ranked second among all Division I teams in defensive efficiency, allowing just 73.7 points per 100 possessions — statistically the best defense the Gamecocks have fielded in Staley’s tenure — and first in block rate (16.8 percent).
The star of Staley’s show is Aliyah Boston, who seems to have taken last year’s heartbreak personally. The National Player of the Year candidate reeled off an SEC-record 27 consecutive double-doubles while anchoring the Gamecocks’ elite defense, her two-way dominance commonly cited in social media debates regarding the country’s top player. Boston, a junior, embodies South Carolina basketball.
There’s plenty of depth to this Gamecocks squad, too. The 6’5 Boston is joined in the frontcourt by Victaria Saxton (6’2), Laeticia Amihere (6’4) and Kamilla Cardoso (6’7); flanked by the 6’1 Brea Beal, South Carolina’s defensive length is virtually unmatched, allowing them to grind opponents down possession by possession while punishing any mistakes they make on the other end of the court. South Carolina was second to none in offensive rebounding rate (45.9 percent) in 2021-22; while guards Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke can certainly push the envelope offensively, the team’s top-notch work on the glass is its ultimate safety net against subpar offensive possessions.
Is this recipe enough to win a national championship? In fairness to previous Gamecocks teams, this season’s iteration is far different than the one that cut down the nets back in 2017 — it has fewer players who can take over a game offensively — and Stanford, the team that sent South Carolina home in last year’s NCAA Tournament, still reigns as the defending champion.
Even so, it’s hard to argue with the results the Gamecocks have gotten. Should they advance past Louisville in the Final Four, they’ll face either UConn or Stanford — two teams they’ve already defeated this season in nonconference play — in the title game. The NCAA Tournament is a different grind than the regular season, to be sure, but after testing her players rigorously early on, Staley has them set up perfectly for what they’ve been seeking for a full calendar year: a shot at redemption.