There are already dozens of banners hanging from the rafters of Colonial Life Arena, but none quite like the one that will go up Friday evening.
That’s when, before facing Alabama State to kick off the 2017-2018 season at 7 p.m. Friday, South Carolina women’s basketball will celebrate their historic 2016-2017 one final time, raising its national championship banner and receiving rings for its SEC championship.
In the months since April’s title, the first in Gamecocks history, coach Dawn Staley and her team have been honored, cheered, celebrated and feted in almost every way possible — they’ve cut down nets, hoisted trophies, been thrown a parade and received national title rings at halftime of a football game. Staley even had a street named after her.
Which leaves Friday’s game as the absolute last thing for the Gamecocks to do before they turn to the season at hand, something Staley has been eager to do for quite some time, insisting that the current version of the team doesn’t talk too much about last year.
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“Those are the questions (the media asks) about defending the title. This team is totally different,” Staley said. “I just want to see this team play to the best of its abilities tomorrow. They’ve been working extremely hard. Of course you want more and more and more and more, but this is still a new team and people are having to play new roles for us, and so far it’s been good.”
That being said, the raising of the banner will still be a special moment, star senior forward A’ja Wilson said.
“It’s going to be a great feeling. That’s when it really all goes in,” Wilson said. “That’s something that you’re going to see every time you step into this gym, and just to know that we faced adversity, we got that banner, I think it’s just going to be a daily reminder that it can be done. It’ll feel that much better, that all the work you put in paid off. I’m excited. I’m probably gonna cry. I’m definitely going to cry.”
After the Gamecocks announced they would be receiving their national championship rings at halftime of a football game on Oct. 28, Staley said there was a little backlash from fans who felt the team should have waited to do so among its own supporters. But on Thursday, Staley said she thought the experience of raising the banner in Colonial Life Arena would be a fitting tribute to the program and its fans.
Raising the banner is “probably going to be one of the best experiences of them all,” Staley said. “I think the ring ceremony was a pretty big one, but just being amongst all our basketball fans is going to be pretty special. And that’s why we chose to not do the rings here. I think the banner will definitely bring a lot of excitement, because it’s something that’s never happened here, as far as winning a national championship.”
After the ceremony, of course, Staley, Wilson and the Gamecocks will have to take the court and face Alabama State. It’s a matchup USC is expected to win handily to cap off an exciting, emotional day, but Wilson also said it will mark a good turning point for the team and its fans.
“We can enjoy the national championship, yes, but we can also turn the page, and I really want everyone to just turn the page and understand that we have a whole season ahead of us,” Wilson said.
The banner-raising ceremony will take place 6:30 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena and will be broadcast as part of the game’s digital stream on SEC Network Plus, via the WatchESPN app.
Gamecock fan essentials
Who: Alabama State, finished last season with a 14-16 record, 12-6 in SWAC play
Where: Colonial Life Arena
When: Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Friday, national championship banner and SEC championship ring ceremony at 6:30 p.m., tipoff at 7 p.m.
Watch: No TV broadcast, but streaming digitally through SEC Network Plus via the WatchESPN app, including the banner-raising
Their key player: Junior 6-foot-3 center Tatyana Calhoun, named to SWAC’s preseason all-conference team, averaged 4.9 points and 4.0 rebounds last season
History: This is the first ever matchup between the Gamecocks and the Hornets