David Cloninger

Dawn Staley and her team made a tough task look easy

Boy, you leave town for a few days and come back to find you live in the basketball capital of America …

There are seven schools across the country where basketball teams are still being playing to win a national championship. There would be eight, but South Carolina has two, after the women’s team clinched its second Final Four berth in three years Monday night.

It’s a tremendous accomplishment to send both teams to the Final Four in the same year, and it’s only been done 13 times. And while we’ll all trumpet the “2x4” angle as we should, I’d like to use this space to congratulate USC women’s coach Dawn Staley and her team for their Final Four berth.

The men’s run has been an incredible journey and I’m glad I’ve been along for the ride. But that in no way detracts or overshadows what the women have done. While most expected them to get this far, this season wasn’t easy.

You have to understand the women’s game to know. Most times, you don’t see the upsets that are so prevalent in the men’s game. Most times, it’s the team with the most talent that wins, and that’s why USC has made it look a lot simpler than it actually is.

This season was rough. The Gamecocks beat a lot of great teams, and not at home, with a very thin bench. There were injuries. Staley had to change her point guard mid-stream, installing a freshman over a junior.

When the year finished so well, after it looked like the SEC regular-season championship and maybe the tournament title were gone, the Gamecocks lost the indispensable Alaina Coates. They still won the SEC Tournament, survived being sent across the country to play their third and fourth games and are Lone Star state-bound for the Final Four.

You don’t just replace a Tiffany Mitchell or Asia Dozier or Khadijah Sessions, but Staley did. You don’t often survive the loss of a 6-foot-4 wrecking ball in the paint, but Staley did.

I have been here since Staley laid the first brick of this program and have seen it build to this mansion. Now they head back to the sport’s final weekend, where they play Stanford and with a win, perhaps get another shot at Connecticut – a machine that has won 111 consecutive games and the past three national championships.

If circumstances align, perhaps I’ll get to see each team in action this weekend. I’ll save the double kudos if that happens.

For now, what an outstanding job, and season, for Staley’s Gamecocks. Sure has been a long time since I was sitting here talking about 10-win seasons.

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