CONGRATULATIONS to the USC women’s basketball team, which will begin play in the NCAA tournament Sunday as a No. 1 seed.
While it was clear that the Gamecocks had become one of the best teams in the nation and on a trajectory toward elite status, its selection as one of the top four teams in the field this year puts it ahead of schedule.
The distinction is unprecedented in South Carolina history. Although the program has had a few stellar moments over the years — the best being an Elite Eight appearance back in the 2001-02 season — it has spent much of its time wallowing in mediocrity.
But after going 10-18 with just two wins in the Southeastern Conference upon her arrival in 2008, coach Dawn Staley has raised the level of play and expectation for the USC women’s program. Coach Staley’s team has improved every year since that opening campaign and has logged three straight 20-win seasons. This season the Gamecocks, 27-4 overall, posted a 14-2 record in the SEC to claim the regular season crown in what is widely considered the nation’s toughest and deepest conference.
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Not only has its stellar season garnered South Carolina team honors, but several individuals also have been recognized for their hard work.
Coach Staley was named SEC Coach of the Year by The Associated Press as well as by the league’s coaches, and she is one of four finalists for the Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year.
Tiffany Mitchell was named to the All-Southeastern Conference first team by the AP and SEC Player of the Year by league coaches. She was joined on the coaches All-SEC first team by Aleighsa Welch. Freshman Alaina Coates, a Dutch Fork High School graduate, received the AP award for SEC Newcomer of the Year; league coaches also named her Freshman of the Year and co-6th Woman of the Year. SEC coaches also named Tiffany Mitchell and Elem Ibiam to the all-defensive team.
Coach Staley and her staff and players have done an outstanding job. USC’s women’s basketball program has been transformed into a national contender with staying power with grit, sound coaching and stellar recruiting. With this year’s team being laden with youth and a strong recruiting class on the way — it could become exceptional if Columbia’s A’ja Wilson of Heathwood Hall signs on — the basketball program’s potential seems unlimited.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s NCAA tournament time.
The Gamecocks are well able to right the ship and make a run after a lackluster performance to end the season. The journey begins at 5:30 p.m. Sunday in Seattle against Cal State Northridge. Although the Gamecocks are expected to make it out of Seattle, the rest of the journey gets tougher, with the likes of Stanford, Penn State, Florida and North Carolina in the field.
Winning a national championship this year would be a challenge for sure. But it would be for any team. The Gamecocks could make a deep run in the tournament. And the farther they go, who knows? What already has been a phenomenal year easily could turn into a magical one.
Whatever happens, the Gamecocks already have made South Carolina proud.