THE OFFICIAL CELEBRATION of South Carolina’s latest national championship was postponed a few days because of last week’s stormy weather. But the delay shouldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of fans who will line Columbia’s Main Street Sunday afternoon to congratulate the women’s basketball team.
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Coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks were the highlight of what may be the greatest two weeks in USC sports history. The Gamecocks fulfilled Coach Staley’s vision of building an elite program, one that would routinely compete for the sport’s top prize.
Along the way, the Gamecocks also built what is arguably the nation’s most passionate fan base for women’s college basketball. Fans who for years have led the nation in attendance — and who are known for their raucousness both at home and away — won’t curb their enthusiasm because of a few thunderstorms.
Coach Staley’s team deserves the adulation and a parade. USC’s other basketball team also deserves recognition.
Coach Frank Martin’s men’s basketball team didn’t win the national championship. But USC fans burst with pride as his Gamecocks accomplished the unthinkable. A program that had not won an NCAA tournament game in 44 years landed on college basketball’s grandest stage, the Final Four.
South Carolina was the only school this year and only the 10th ever to send both the men’s and women’s basketball teams to the Final Four in the same season.
More than one South Carolina fan felt the urge to pinch his or her own skin to make sure it was real.
It was, Gamecocks. It was.
It was real because of the hard work and passion of, first, the head coaches but also their assistants and players.
Coach Staley had been building for this moment for nine years. The season before she became head coach, the Gamecocks won just four games in the Southeastern Conference. The average attendance at home was 1,801 per game.
The Gamecocks have now won four straight regular-season SEC championships and three straight tournament championships. In the 2015-2016 season, they drew 14,364 fans per game, the best in the nation. (The NCAA has not released official statistics for the most recent season.)
The turnaround was accomplished by Coach Staley’s confidence and devotion to defense. She also convinced some of the nation’s best players to wear the garnet and black, especially A’Ja Wilson of Hopkins.
Ms. Wilson, rated the nation’s No. 1 recruit three years ago, has become, in our opinion, the nation’s best college player. In the Final Four, she grabbed 19 rebounds in the semi-final game against Stanford and scored 23 points in the final against Mississippi State.
Beyond the statistics, Ms. Wilson’s determination simply drove the Gamecocks to the title.
Although it was the first national championship for the women’s team, the title wasn’t a surprise. USC was rated the third-best team in the tournament, and most expected the Gamecocks to be in the Final Four.
But most fans and pundits had different expectations for the men’s team.
After losing in the SEC tournament in early March, Coach Martin called his team “little puppies.”
Just a week later, they were full-grown Dobermans. They ended the 44-year drought by beating Marquette, then steamrolled Duke, Baylor and Florida to become the first Gamecock men’s team ever to play in the Final Four.
The Gamecocks mirrored Coach Martin’s toughness. Despite trailing both Duke and Florida at halftime, the team still beat those traditional basketball powers. A spectacular play by the Blue Devils or Gators was matched by a three-point play or a defensive turnover by the Gamecocks.
Like Coach Staley’s team, the men were led by a South Carolinian — Sindarius Thornwell of Lancaster. The SEC player of the year, Mr. Thornwell was called the nation’s best unheralded player by the legendary Mike Krzyzewski of Duke.
After the Gamecocks lost to Gonzaga on Saturday, Zags coach Mark Few didn’t compare them to puppies. USC “showed the heart of a lion,” he said.
That description applies to both of the school’s basketball teams. Their hearts drove both teams to new heights for their school, its fans and our entire state.
On Sunday afternoon, the women’s team will get a well-deserved, national championship parade. Here’s hoping another championship parade is held next year — for both teams.