They crowded into the room, ranging in age and hometown. Many were the same faces that packed multiple buses for games at Duke, Auburn and Georgia and the same names that light up Twitter in admiration of coach Dawn Staley, which she always replies to.
Like the intro video says, G-Hive is a lifestyle.
“It makes it great. It’s just part of the total experience,” said Eastover’s Ben Schooner, a season-ticker holder for three years, on the team’s bus trip to Durham earlier this season. “I feel like they’re coming down to your level, to the fans. They’re really appreciative of the fans.”
Staley always is, constantly thanking them for making USC the national attendance leader for the past three years and putting together any initiative she can to reward them for it. Following their coach, the fans crammed into The Zone to watch Monday’s NCAA Selection Show applauded, booed (when UConn coach Geno Auriemma was on screen), exulted in a No. 1 selection and muttered when it was announced in a California regional.
That’s why it works so well. Staley isn’t just a coach throwing a few bones to a fan base that’s packed Colonial Life Arena the past three seasons. Every person who walks into that arena for a women’s game is immediately part of the family.
“I’ve always been a season-ticket holder, even when it was bad,” said Kathy Monts, who also took that bus ride to Duke. “She just enlightens all of us.”
Of course, nothing pulls in the crowds like winning, and USC has done that in spades the past four seasons. The Gamecocks scrapped to their first SEC regular-season championship four years ago, then signed top national recruit A’ja Wilson to make the transformation complete.
A staple of the Top 10 and a team that’s owned the SEC while losing nine overall games since 2014 started the NCAA tournament as an expected Final Four team. The fans have been as big a part of it as the players; CLA has become the toughest road environment in the league.
“We need this back in Oxford,” Ole Miss coach Matt Insell marveled, repeating several other coaches who subbed in their town or stadium. All also thank Staley for what she’s doing promoting the sport – it’s hard for TV to ignore close to 13,000 screaming featherheads every night, making such a great atmosphere that they immediately want to come back.
Selena Bookert, like many, first came around because of Staley’s name. Not many don’t know how she ruled the game, first in college and then the pros, including USA basketball. For fans of the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting, it was a natural progression down I-77.
Some, like Schooner, were intrigued by the affordable ticket price for an outstanding team, a mix not in great demand around USC. Once the team began winning big, fans would naturally re-up.
All say they’re ready for another home NCAA tournament game Sunday and perhaps could go to California for the next two.
Final Four in Dallas? How could they miss?
“I wouldn’t be any other place,” Monts said.
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