David Cloninger

Final Four: When a goal becomes an expectation for USC women, the road gets harder

tglantz@thestate.com

South Carolina knew it had the talent to reach the Final Four last year, so there was no problem setting it as a goal.

So what happens when “goal” becomes “expectation?”

What happens is Dawn Staley, who’s had the gas pedal floored for seven seasons, starts to tap the brake.

Don’t get the wrong idea. She’s not limiting what she wants this team to strive for, because she knows it is as talented as last year, if not more so.

But as much as she wants to make this program like Tennessee or Connecticut, there are a lot of miles left to travel before the Gamecocks are there.

“We’re going to keep it a goal,” Staley said, as in not labeling the Final Four an expectation. “I think sometimes our players get into thinking, because we accomplished going to the Final Four, it’s automatic.”

Then she said something that seemed curious, until I realized it was simple truth.

“This team isn’t last year’s team.”

Staley didn’t say it to be negative. She said it because she knows that talent isn’t everything. While the Gamecocks are still extremely stocked with basketball X’s and O’s, talent doesn’t always win.

The Gamecocks reached the Final Four last year because they won two possessions – Tiffany Mitchell’s bucket against North Carolina and Khadijah Sessions swiping a ball from Florida State. It was that close.

Staley knows how hard it is to keep repeating Final Fours. She went to three straight as a player at Virginia. And while she wants USC to someday be compared to Tennessee and UConn, she’s not sure if she wants it to be a disappointment if the Gamecocks don’t get to the Final Four, as it’s viewed in those programs.

The Huskies have never gone more than three years between Final Four appearances since they started going in 1991. The Lady Volunteers could say the same except for their current drought, without a Final Four since 2008.

While Staley wants the success for her program, she’s not quite certain if she wants any season that doesn’t end in the Final Four to be viewed as a disappointment.

“It’s a really hard feat,” she said. “We’re going to keep it a goal, because it’s hard.”

This team has the talent to get back. Mitchell is one of the country’s elite players. A’ja Wilson has only scratched the surface of her immense talent, Alaina Coates will be one of the nation’s best “big girls” and Staley reloaded with a new face that also happens to be the best rebounder in the ACC. I would be lying if I said I haven’t thought that Final Four site Indianapolis is really convenient for me, since it’s a two-hour drive from my fiancee’s home in Kentucky.

This team is very, very good. But the SEC got stronger. USC’s schedule got tougher. The Final Four remains a goal, not an expectation.

Sort of.

“I think it is an expectation. From here on, we expect to be a Final Four team,” Mitchell said. “It is still a goal, but it will be disappointing if we don’t make it back.”

Dawn Staley’s record at USC

Year

Record

Postseason

2008-09

10-18

None

2009-10

14-15

None

2010-11

18-15

WNIT 2nd round

2011-12

25-10

NCAA Sweet 16

2012-13

25-8

NCAA 2nd round

2013-14

29-5

NCAA Sweet 16

2014-15

34-3

NCAA Final 4

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